Over the past seven months, I have been listening and learning from people’s stories of death and dying under Covid-19 in the UK. I have conducted observations and interviews with religious professionals, funeral celebrants, funeral directors, and people who experienced personal loss to understand the capacity of death care rituals to be transformed in the pandemic. I can’t do justice to all of the insights people shared with me in nearly forty interviews, but I would like to try to, and recount some of this collaborative reflection here. In doing so, I also draw on nearly six-hundred survey contributions, where although not everyone told a death care story, it has definitely emerged as a unifying link through hundreds of responses.
Funerary care, the rituals with capacity to transform and deal with crisis have faced crisis of their own under Covid-19. From the onset, death has been narrated publicly across the UK with a grim daily count. We were being asked to imagine the dead through mortality graphs, images of emergency morgues, double and triple-bagged bodies, empty crematoria, and stacked up coffins. While images of mass death became part of our everyday, we have been distanced from the rituals that usually bring us face to face with the dead and which are designed to help us process our grief.
The voices of my participants make it strikingly clear that all the ways we care and grieve for the dead have been challenged. Their experiences make visible the difficulties they have been facing, caught in the maelstrom between the governmental guidelines and grief. The pandemic has reconfigured everything about how we experience the spaces and timeframes of death, alone and together. At times, it has brought religious, public and corporate infrastructures involved in caring for the dead to the point of breakdown. Our fears of dying alone (yet en masse) became acute. We also became more aware of the emotional and spiritual concern for the appropriate care for the dead, their bodies, the memory of them, and their potential afterlives. In spaces of overwhelming loss, practitioners and volunteers of all faiths and none have felt an increased sense of responsibility to make every death matter. They have been transforming the spaces of loss into spaces of incredible resilience and creativity to provide dignity of care for the dead.
On (in)visibility of death care
The pandemic not only triggered a public conversation about death care, but also demanded that death care practitioners take a much more pivotal role in organising and mediating death. This transformation happened fast, with little room to seek debate. It threw the death care practitioners, who before the pandemic had largely played a crucial but often intentionally invisible or behind the scenes role in death care, into a blazing furnace. In the midst of pandemic turmoil, they were rendered responsible and accountable for making sense of chaotic guidelines and restrictions governing death.
The national and regional governments have greatly relied on the death industry and religious communities to do the job of death crisis response, who acted as proxy decision makers and policy interpreters. This created a buffer zone which absorbed the shocks of the pandemic. While some funeral directors and celebrants were unable to attend to the ritual needs of others because of shielding, the closure of religious buildings, churches, mosques and gurdwaras also reorganised death care. In many ways, it meant relocating care for the dead from the inside of the faith communities into civic and commercial settings.
However, while the fatality rate quickly became a measure of pandemic severity, the Coronavirus Act issued on 25 March 2020 left many death care professionals out of real consideration. In our interview, Sarah, a funeral director in Yorkshire, explained that guidance about the funerals was slow and, when it trickled through, it was vulnerable to being interpreted very differently at a local level: “it was a bit of a postcode lottery.” Without clear guidelines, death care practitioners often made different decisions, which meant that different rules were being followed in different places. Two interviewees recounted how similar requests resulted in disparate responses. In one case, the British Black Caribbean Baptist family attending their grandfather’s funeral requested a permission to bring their own individual shovels to throw dirt into the grave after the casket was lowered to the ground. This request was denied. The cemetery staff made their decision based on the adopted interpretation of the guidelines that did not accommodate any special requests at that time. In another case, the director of the Jewish cemetery offered a solution of bringing personal-use shovels to accommodate this aspect of ritual practice for grieving individuals in his care. While a given number of funeral attendees is stipulated by law, many other restrictions or accommodations have been made by individual funeral directors, local authorities, graveyards etc. The director of the Jewish cemetery felt that such use of shovels, if adhered to strictly, would not pose a risk of virus transmission, but would accommodate an important cultural and religious practice.
Despite efforts by individual practitioners and organisations such as The Good Funeral Guide and National Burial Council to create a more informed death care space, wide-ranging levels of cultural, religious, and medical literacy among the death care practitioners can, nevertheless, sometimes inadvertently contribute to the emergence of the uneven and uncertain landscape of death care. This Comparisons people naturally made between their experiences and people they knew or saw meant that many people felt “robbed” or “harder done by than others,” depending on the restrictions implemented in their area or even in different crematoria. Joanna, a funeral director in the South of England, recounted the distress of a grieving family in her care who while waiting for their slot at the crematorium witnessed another funeral where a number of attendees exceeded the number of twenty mourners permitted at that crematorium and where the attendees were also involved as pallbearers. Some crematoria, because of their architectural design, are unable to accommodate a currently legally permitted number of thirty mourners and many funeral directors and crematoria have not allowed the family pallbearers to protect their staff who have been working in specific bubbles in the pandemic and have their own family’s health to consider. At times, this has been a source of considerable confusion and upset for all involved.
Joanna had multiple conversations over Zoom and phone with her client explaining the numbers and all the ‘cans’ and ‘cannots’ at that crematorium. She spent a lot of time preparing the grieving family for the limitations, while also suggesting alternative practices to make their experience more meaningful and inclusive (including the use of technology for livestreaming and inclusion of pre-recorded tributes, symbolic ritual acts to include others remotely such as holding of their favourite flowers or wearing their favourite colour and designing creative routes to travel through with the dead along the route to the funeral). “I just remember her face. I will always remember her face. It was more an added layer of sadness than anger,” Hannah said in our interview. “She didn’t say anything, she just looked at me and I knew she was silently questioning me why I told her otherwise.” Hannah’s is just one example of many of the expectations that the death care practitioners are having to field and continuously (re)negotiate.
Varied interpretations of the rules, framed through specific regional regulations, also mean uneven access to spaces of ritual death care across the UK. Due to closures of spaces of worship, crematoria assumed an unexpected centrality as mourning sites. Some crematoria in the North of England and Northern Ireland either shut completely or did not permit people to enter the crematorium or even the crematorium grounds. Some decided to close to safeguard the wellbeing and health of their staff or were forced to shut due to coronavirus infections among them. Others decided to close temporarily until appropriate safety protocols were developed and they were able to reopen safely. A representative of the Belfast crematorium stated that the decision to close the crematorium grounds was motivated by concerns over their ability to control the numbers and prevent crowds from gathering. In Norther Ireland, funerals tend to draw large crowds and “policing spontaneous gatherings would have been impossible.”
Lisa, a Humanist funeral celebrant in Northern Ireland reflecting on the closures, was among many of my interviewees who spoke about the “brutality” of the disruption to the ritual processing of loss and how death was being both put on display by barring people from sites where it could be meaningfully processed, while also rendering it “invisible” to the senses. When her own mother passed away in a care home, she arranged for her mother’s funeral to be held beyond the border in the Republic of Ireland where she felt she could honour her mother in a more dignified manner. She saw no love or compassion in honouring her mother’s life and death by watching her coffin being wheeled away for cremation on a small TV screen set up at the crematorium gates. She openly admitted that her ability to find an alternative was due to her knowledge and expertise as a death care professional.
When communities have worked together to find common solutions, over time, they’ve managed to mobilise and take the dead into their own care. Mosques in Birmingham, while closing their doors to communal and individual worship, opened their doors to the dead, mobilised volunteers for handling ritual care of the dead bodies, sourced PPE equipment to protect the volunteers, developed protocols and training, built emergency mortuaries, and adapted death ritual protocols to protect people’s health and limit transmission of the virus. A representative of one of the Birmingham mosques explained how the decision was made at the start of the pandemic to temporarily pause performing of ghusl, ritual washing of dead bodies: “Following the consultation, shura, where we draw on the expertise in the community, both on religious and medical side, we were able to make this decision as a community and the Imams reassured people about the Islamic appropriateness of the funerals.” In the beginning, reliable medical evidence to determine the Covid-19 transmission through contact with the dead body was not available. So, the decision reached via shura erred on the side of caution to protect lives of those involved in death care. The protection of life is the first of the five ultimate objectives of Islamic law which overrides any other Islamic obligations, including those concerning Islamic burial laws. Drawing on religious authority, the dignity and spiritual wellbeing of the dead was being brokered through the needs of and obligations toward the living.
Concerns around the ritual care of the dead, including where and how it happens, reveal the hidden prominence of death in our society. Dead bodies matter and they do important work – the living need the dead far more than the dead need the living. Both require the care and compassionate labour of death care specialists, religious and otherwise. Death care practitioners’ experiences reveal significant tensions that the disruptions of ritual death care can have on the lives of individuals and the society at large. The pandemic has been a considerable learning curve for all involved in ritual care for the dead and the living, but it has also created opportunities for death care to articulate its distinctive contribution to the society. While people are far from united on long lasting changes it will bring, the (in)visibility of the death care practitioners and the labour they perform articulate, more than ever, the necessity for an open conversation around death and ritualised death care in crisis and beyond. The need for this conversation is even greater as the implications of the pandemic are still emerging, even pointing to potentially devastating consequences. We may still need more creativity and resilience in the future of death care.
Loss in Translation: Exploring Listening in Research Practice
As a team, we have been exploring the creative and the analytical capacities of voice, audio production, and storytelling. We are pleased to present our recent collaboration, Loss in Translation: Funerals and Death Care, a pilot audio documentary about the enormous transformations in death care rituals under Covid-19. It is a product of our explorations. Loss in Translation and emerged from the collaboration of the Bric-19 research team, Lucia Scazzocchio from Social Broadcasts and Sasha Edye-Lindner. This pilot made us reflect deeply on the research process, purpose, and outcomes of such intimate work with human voices, both as researchers and as people who experienced loss during this pandemic. We are grateful to everyone who lend their support and reflections to this project.
You are invited to join this collaboration by tuning into the voices of funeral and death care professionals across faiths and people who have lost their loved ones during the pandemic. Follow the link and get listening. Afterwards, we would like to ask you to share your own reflections with us via a short survey.
The issue of death care in crisis is multifaceted and I will be adding to this conversation in the coming weeks. My investigations of death care during the pandemic are still ongoing. If you’d like to contribute to the project and share your experiences, please do get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.