The impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be felt for years to come, and academic study into this has already begun. Community Co-Ordinator Becky shares some early findings…
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in 1855 in Horsham, West Sussex. In 2020, the company remains independent and family-run, and now has a further three offices across the county, in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. During the organisation’s 165 years in business, the company has established a reputation for personalised, expert service, and strives to continue to develop this in line with the community’s needs. Recently, much has been written about grief and bereavement – Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, discusses the subject further…
This year has been a time of adopting new terminology and practices, but it’s also involved a surprisingly increasing use of some others (things such as ‘new normal’ and ‘unprecedented’). Any significant social change such as the one we’re currently experiencing leads to an increase in self-knowledge, and a huge opportunity for academic study. Typically, this change will occur rather more steadily, for example, the increased use of machine technologies during the Industrial Revolution, or even the changes the world adopted post-9/11. Thanks to coronavirus, the world’s population has had to make adjustments overnight – everything from the way we shop and work, to the way we travel and socialise has shifted.
As we become accustomed to our current way of being, and as time passes, it starts to become possible to analyse things more scientifically. Several hot topics have already arisen, such as the impact of lockdown on our day-to-day health and nutrition, in addition to whether or not diagnoses of conditions which aren’t coronavirus being delayed or missed altogether. Something which has impacted many people has been the changes to funeral rituals. Funerals, of course, have been impacted whether the Deceased person died due to coronavirus, or another circumstance. It’s also already been well-recognised that bereavement continues to affect us as we move through our lives – depending on our reaction and the circumstances, it may be that we either experience different emotions for many years, or do not experience them until years later.
With this in mind, plus the fact that these are extenuating circumstances, it will be a long time before we fully understand the impact of coronavirus. However, various things are already becoming clearer. One of the pieces which has interested me was published in OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying. This paper by Alexander Burrell and Lucy Selman involved conducting a rapid review of previous research into the importance of funeral practices, and how this might impact the current situation of funerals being subject to restrictions.
The paper was supported by qualitative evidence from those who have been bereaved during the pandemic. Findings from the paper include that further research is urgently needed into how to support those who have been bereaved recently. Additionally, ‘the benefit of after-death rituals including funerals depends on the ability of the bereaved to shape those rituals and say goodbye in a way which is meaningful for them’. This would support the anecdotal evidence we have gathered here at Freeman Brothers.
As part of our regular service, we ask customers for their feedback by means of a survey after the funeral. During the pandemic, several customers have commented that, whilst the funeral they’ve had hasn’t been what they had expected, or may have chosen, it has been incredibly meaningful. Words such as ‘intimate’ and ‘personal’ have been used and, whilst expressing the intent to hold a larger celebration of life or thanksgiving service at a later date, several have also said that they were pleased with the service which was carried out ‘given the current circumstances’.
The paper further supports what our customers have been telling us. The researchers’ qualitative research of those who had been recently bereaved showed that, ‘restrictions to funeral practices do not necessarily entail poor outcomes or experiences for the bereaved: it is not the number of attendees or even the type of funeral which determines how supportive it is, but rather how meaningful the occasion is, and how connected it helps mourners feel’. Whilst we haven’t compared and contrasted directly, by asking those who have had unrestricted choice regarding funeral arrangements, in addition to those who have experienced restricted choices, this does tally with our recent anecdotal experiences. It could be interesting, when the time is right, to question whether previous experiences have been truly meaningful in the way that recent ones have. As our Manager, Abi Pattenden, has frequently said recently, this has been an opportunity for people to interrogate their beliefs.
Digital funerals have also been discussed in the paper. At the height of social distancing, congregations weren’t just limited by capacity at venues, but also by the legality of travelling even within our own country – strictly speaking, there was a time when people weren’t allowed to travel particularly far. Not being able to stay overnight in hotels or private residences also restricted attendance at funerals, as for some journeys to be undertaken as a round trip in a day is not practicable.
It’s not yet possible for conclusions to be firmly drawn regarding streaming of funerals online, but it has certainly been positively received as an option, particularly for those who live abroad, or whose health is vulnerable. To this end, the paper recommends that comparing virtual attendance at funerals to both physical attendance and not being able to attend at all is an important avenue for further exploration. The authors emphasise that this will be important in order to support the mental health of those who are bereaved, and enable service providers to assist these people in processing their experience.
The paper also highlights something that my colleagues and I have perhaps sensed, rather than known outright – that during this time, the support of funeral service professionals has been even more important than it usually is. The authors put this down to the fact that social support from a wider circle of friends and family is unfortunately lacking for those who are bereaved, due to the physical separation impacts of social distancing. I know that my Funeral Arranger colleagues have found it particularly challenging not to meet with their customers in person. Whilst none of them would offer uninvited physical contact with a stranger, there is a lot to be said for being able to observe a person’s reactions to your conversation, and assess their body language if nothing else. And, when appropriate and if comfortable, the team may offer a supportive gesture, be it offering a box of tissues, or shaking hands with their customer. It has been a difficult transition to make, but something which we have all adjusted to.
I’m glad that I came across this paper – it has been great to know that there is enthusiasm within the academic community for providing evidence to support our feelings that, not only are funerals important, but that they can be effective as a ritual despite the size of their attendance. Burrell and Selman recommend that further research is conducted, specifically into the needs of those from different backgrounds, as well as the fact that, ‘palliative care and bereavement teams should provide locally-relevant information regarding the creation of meaningful, culturally appropriate funerals’.
I’ll follow further studies with interest, and look forward to seeing what the researchers find as we continue to explore our changed world.
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