COVID-19 and Funerals or Memorials

COVID-19 is having a big impact on funerals and memorials. But there are still ways to make sure you can celebrate someone’s life, mourn their death, and ensure everyone can be included at this important event … all things that set you on the path to healthy grieving.

What is a funeral for?

We hold funerals to honour, mourn and celebrate. To find support and offer it. To acknowledge our connection to the person who has died and the people around us. To reflect on life and what it means … and to reflect on death and what it means. For people of faith and spirituality (whether formal or informal), a funeral is a time of worship. A funeral gives us collective strength and a sense of unity. The distancing measures crucial to surviving the COVID-19 pandemic make these things difficult … but please know there are still many ways we can honour, celebrate and mourn. And importantly, there are ways you can support the people in your life who need it. Here is one beautiful example of a funeral held in a country town in the Riverina where the community found a way to be present the day after the restrictions on funeral numbers were announced by the Prime Minister.

What are the new rules for a funeral during COVID-19?

It’s true that there are currently many restrictions on funerals, for example:

  • You can only have up to ten people–and note that this includes the celebrant and any other funeral staff.
  • You will need to adhere to social distancing rules–chairs will be set apart, and you will not be able to offer physical comfort such as holding someone’s hand or putting your arm around them
  • Some venues will have restrictions on things like catering, so there will be no cup of tea and a biscuit, or adjournment to the pub
  • Most of these restrictions apply to your private home as well.

These are the restrictions. But what are the things you can do?

Take your time

Take your time

First of all, take your time, there’s no rush … as you make decisions about a funeral, give yourself time to think things through and to talk to the people closest to you. These are important decisions, and you should never feel like you need to hurry. Of course, there are some things you will need to decide more quickly than others, and you don’t want to spend so long that it becomes another source of stress. But take as much time as you need to feel comfortable with the path you decide to take.

Ask questions

Most people only organise two or three funerals in their lifetime, and it’s highly possible this is the only funeral you’ve ever organised. On top of that, everything has changed in the context of COVID-19, so even the things you did know may no longer be true. So ask as many questions as you need. And if you don’t even know where to start, you are welcome to get in touch by phone or email. I am always happy to give you some general guidance even if you decide to use a different celebrant. Sometimes all you need is a quick phone call to help you know you’re not alone or to point you in the right direction.

Funeral now, memorial later?

One approach is to have a small funeral now (perhaps with immediate family) and plan to have a memorial service at a later time. This gives you a lot of flexibility, as well as providing an immediate opportunity to begin the farewell.

What’s the difference between a funeral and a memorial service? At a funeral, the coffin is usually present and cremation or burial takes place as part of the service or immediately after. A funeral will, therefore, usually include a committal–the moment of acknowledging the body is to be buried or cremated.

A memorial service takes place sometime after the cremation or burial. A memorial service might be in addition to a funeral, or it might be instead of a funeral. For example, for someone who lives interstate there might be a funeral where the person were living, then a memorial service later to include friends and family who couldn’t travel. Often, there will be a direct cremation where the funeral director arranges for the cremation, the family collects the ashes and then arranges the memorial service at a later time.

In a secular context, there doesn’t need to be any particular difference between a funeral and a memorial–the building blocks will be the same, for example, a eulogy, tributes from friends and family, reflection time with music, sharing photographs. In fact, about half the services I do are already memorial services, usually after a direct cremation but sometimes after a funeral.

A memorial is sometimes held with the ashes present, other times just before the ashes are scattered, and sometimes at the interment of the ashes (when they are put into place at a cemetery for example).

How do I arrange a memorial service?

While you can ask a funeral director, many people arrange the memorial service themselves, approaching a celebrant to help them with the formal part of the day. I’ve been to memorial services in people’s homes or gardens, the Botanic Gardens and other parks and gardens, formal venues, and many other places that had special meaning. People often find deep satisfaction in creating a memorial service that truly reflects the unique character and style of the person they are grieving.

I am always happy to give you guidance or talk through the options and possibilities. Please feel free to contact me if you want help understanding your options.

If you do decide to plan for a memorial service at a later time, I would still recommend some sort of service, ceremony or marking of the occasion in the short term–a short service with only immediate family present for example. This holds many important functions, including an opportunity to acknowledge the reality of your new situation. This is perhaps especially true at this time when so much of our world has a sense of the unreal.

Streaming or recording the funeral

Another simple option is to have the funeral, but have it streamed and recorded so that everyone can be there virtually. Most of the funeral directors I know and work with are offering this service, and certainly the main venues already have these facilities available. If you are not at a venue that offers this service, there are many independent companies and funeral directors will put you in touch with them. Please do use someone with experience who can make sure it will all go smoothly on the day. I’ve had services streamed in the past, but I wasn’t sure how they would go with so few people in the room, but most people I know who have used streaming have been surprised at how well it has gone.

Writing the life story (eulogy)

I often say that a person’s life story is a rich and powerful gift … and there are ways to share that even if it is going to be some time before you hold the memorial service. If you would like help writing a life story either for yourself or to share with others, I do offer this as a service separate to the funeral or memorial. There are many flexible ways to approach this, and I’m always happy to talk it through.

Grief goes on … continue to reflect and share

On my funeral celebrancy website I have started a blog post with information and links about grieving in a time of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are grieving or if you know someone who is grieving, know that it is important to acknowledge that grief even if it does feel that we are all grieving in a way. The loss of your mum or dad, sibling or friend is a significant event, even in the midst of a global significant event. Remember that there are many ways to reflect and to share. The funeral or memorial is an important time, but there are many other ways to reflect and share, from making playlists to cooking favourite meals, to simply sitting and listening to a favourite piece of music. Make time for these small moments and activities … they can be extremely healing.