Saying a final farewell to our closest loved ones through a funeral ceremony is one of the hardest things any of us will ever have to undertake. The grief caused through a bereavement is top of the five most stressful life events any one of us ever has to experience. Civil Celebrant Bob Noble shares his reflections on funerals during the Coronavirus pandemic.

As humans, our entire life is marked by ceremonies. They bring us closer together, build bonds with close family members and strengthen friendships that we often treasure for life. A funeral is our final ceremony: a time to say goodbye.

From the moment we are born and as we grow and move on through life, we celebrate the milestones – births, birthdays, comings of age, weddings and important anniversaries.

As a species, we also mark the march of time with major festivals throughout the year, including the beginning of each New Year, and as human beings we look forward to planning the great celebrations of life. They become markers in our memory banks.

In these strange and unfamiliar times, a time when a tiny invisible cell denies us the chance to be together, the poignancy of the loss of the chances to celebrate the milestones is devastating.

Deaths, like births, are a particular defining moment – one the beginning of life and the other, the end. When the end comes, it is heavy with sadnesss and sorrow. It is the absence of presence, when a friend or loved one is no longer here to talk to, to spend time with, to cuddle.

The majority of us when asked state we wish to die at home with our loved ones surrounding us. Coronavirus, for many, has now robbed us of that important moment and the grief endured is all the more painful for both the dying and their nearest and dearest when they can’t be together at the final moment of separation and departing.

When it comes to planning and running funerals, as a Celebrant, for many years, I have noticed things change. Families are often distraught at the loss of a family member, often in shock and despair, yet they still wish to ensure the final ceremony of farewell is appropriate, dignified and fitting.

It is worth bearing in mind at this point that a funeral fulfils two basic requirements. Firstly, it is a procedure to dispose of someone’s mortal remains. Secondly, we accompany the process with a ceremony, a communial celebration that recognises someone once lived. For a short focused period of time, we try to remember and relive the memories we have been able to share with the person who has died.

When we do that, most of us want to do it with as many people as we can.

In addition, we ourselves will often attend a funeral to give and show support for those who are closest to the person who has died. It is a chance to recognise and give thanks that they have played an important and relevant part in our own lives.

Under the current lockdown, funerals that I have arranged and led have been limited to no more than ten mourners. In theory, those ten close family or friends have had to sit two metres apart.

The emptiness of chapels that have been designed to seat up to eighty or a hundred mourners when there are only ten, multiplies the feeling of loneliness. At the first ceremony I undertook during lockdown, there were only four relatives in attendance. One of those was the 15 year old granddaughter of the gentleman who had died. As I read through the eulogy and we listened to the carefully chosen music for the service, the granddaughter, sitting totally alone, quietly wept – no one to touch her, comfort her, even hold hands. It was heartbreaking.

Rules are rules but what occurred to me after the funeral, and only after sadly, was the fact that the four mourners had all travelled in the same car to get to the crematorium, therefore there was no need for them to be seated two metres apart. I didn’t let that situation happen again. Those who now arrive at any funeral I manage are offered the chance to sit with the same people they travelled with.

Many chapels in crematoria have webcast facilities, allowing services to be transmitted via the internet – accessed by a password. This allows for those unable to be in the chapel to view the whole ceremony and remember the deceased from the peace and tranquility of their own home, allowing them time to grieve and time for their own reflections.

There have been some funerals that I have conducted where the family has felt uncomfortable about transmitting the key moment of their maximum grief to a wider audience. In some cases, I have propped up a mobile phone in place and linked it via a one-to-one Facetime call, which has proved to be more personal.

When I meet with a family we create and design a service that can include special pieces of music, verses, poems, sometimes a reading from a religious text. Prior to the strict requirements now laid down by Government we would discuss the entrance and ending to the ceremony. Do the family wish to supply their own pall bearers, do they wish to process behind the coffin into the chapel and do they want the curtains closed or left open at the end of the ceremony? Under the current guidelines, these are options that I am now no longer able offer.

Most coffins are now wheeled into the chapel on a small trolley as this requires fewer bearers to be in close contact with each other or with mourners. It is not particularly dignified. Only the funeral directors are allowed to touch the coffin and that includes the placing of any personal mementos or flowers on top.

At the end of the ceremony, all Celebrants are now required to close the curtains. In the past, many families preferred the curtains to be left open so they could come up and place a flower on the casket of their loved one or whisper their own personal farewell along with a gentle touch.

On leaving the chapel now there is an even more desperate emptiness with so few people in attendance and all of us outside standing the required distance apart. More often than not there is no wake as social distancing has put paid to any such gatherings for reminiscing.

Many families I have helped in the last six weeks are planning a memorial service for their loved ones at some point in the future – although no one still knows when. Some have chosen a direct cremation now, with no one in attendance.

One thing is for sure – our human instincts and deep-seated thoughts still see our mortal remains as the embodiment of our existence on this planet. Even though most families felt or saw a complete change in their nearest and dearest on their last breath, as though a spirit or a soul had left them, we often find it uncomfortable to think of the body of our loved one being left somewhere unknown until such time as they can be buried or cremated.

The funeral ceremony, with the coffin slowly screened as the curtains gently close, is still the biggest moment of emotional release in an acceptance that a particular chapter in someone’s life has finally closed and we who are left behind can start to move on.

That moment of closure is still a powerful opportunity to grieve the deepest. When we are unable to do that in a chapel in the company of our closest relatives, or a mass of friends and colleagues, our hearts are robbed of the love and support we so desperately need.

One thing that the Coronavirus has done is made it quite clear to everyone who amongst us are the most critical at a time of such distress. It makes each one of us recognise and treasure the most important people in our lives and what, after taking everything into account, really matters. Apart from the family we are locked down with, those who chose a life of care as a profession have at last been recognised for their bravery, compassion, selflessness and skills.  I for one, desperately hope they won’t be forgotten when this crisis is all over.

Earlier last month I carried out a funeral ceremony for a young woman who had died at the age of just fifty-four. She had been a dedicated and highly trained nurse for twenty-two of her fifty-four years at one hospital, her whole skilled professional life dedicated to helping to heal and comfort others.

In the chapel, on a cold, windy and wet day were the young woman’s parents, her husband, his parents and just two of her closest friends. Seven mourners to say farewell. When we left the chapel, in the car park, in the rain there were twenty or so nurses standing two metres apart. From under their umbrellas they gently applauded. They had come on the day to pay their respects to a much loved and admired colleague and to thank her family for the gift of her life.

The emptiness of bereavement we all felt at that funeral that day became just that little bit less suffocating. The love that exuded from those in that car park at the precious moment will stay in my memory for many years to come.