Humanist funerals during the pandemic

by Deborah Hooper – Humanist Celebrant, London

One of the saddest and most difficult consequences of the pandemic has been the way in which funerals have had to take place. For a family which has lost a loved one unexpectedly and quickly, quite possibly without being able to spend time with them in their final days, it has been unbearably painful to not be able to say a final farewell in the way they would have hoped. 

In most London crematoria and cemeteries, the number of mourners has been limited to just 10, family members have not been permitted to bear the coffin, and the length of ceremony has been curtailed to allow for cleaning between services. In some locations, police tape has been used across seats to enforce social distancing. It’s a brutal, and ugly, solution to a very real problem: that gatherings of people indoors are the biggest risk to spreading the COVID-19 virus. Most tragic of all is the lack of physical contact, the inability to comfort and support one another with a hug, or a touch to an arm. 

As humanist celebrants, creating funerals focused on honouring and celebrating the life and individuality of the person who has died, we’ve helped families navigate the current restrictions and find new ways to create inclusive and meaningful ceremonies: using the live streaming that is now available in all locations to permit people to watch from elsewhere, in the UK and internationally; including video recordings of readings by family members who cannot be present; incorporating rituals to represent the love of family and friends, such as a circle of mourners to receive the hearse outside the chapel, or the placing flowers from everyone’s own gardens in a trug at the foot of the coffin. Very often, the ceremonies are recorded, so that they can be shared with those unable to attend on the day. 

Despite the challenges, during this time I’ve led some of the most emotional and tender ceremonies imaginable, and families have told me afterwards how deeply moved they’ve been. Being a very small group, often only the very closest to the person who has died, has meant that we are all connected and present, talking directly to one another (and sometimes directly to those watching on the video stream).  We have been able to create memorable and meaningful occasions, full of love, care and human warmth. 

Thankfully, the rules are starting to be relaxed just a little: in some crematoria, 20 mourners are now allowed, which makes an enormous difference to a grieving family. In the next weeks and months, hopefully we’ll start a way to finding the new normal for funerals, different from before but more flexible for families to be able to support and comfort each other when they need it most