Covid, Shaping the Future of Funerals
Restrictions around funerals during the Covid-19 pandemic compounded the grief and devastation felt by many of the bereaved. The services following a death are an important part of the grieving process. Not being able to undertake ceremonies and rituals in the intended way has left some people feeling perhaps guilty or cheated of their final goodbye.
Everyone in the ‘deathcare’ support system has worked tirelessly to lessen the impact of these constraints. Out of this work have come some wonderful adaptations. So, will funerals return to traditional styles now most COVID restrictions have gone? It’s an interesting question.
This blog will look at how digital technology took a front seat during the pandemic, leading to some very positive outcomes. At the same time, it is becoming clear that there is a general trend towards greater variety in the types or ceremonies and services people are holding. Will these new practices and ideas meld with cherished traditional ones, and is it time for us all to be far more open to thinking and talking about our end-of-life plans? We at Whiteballoon think it should be. What do you think?
Death Goes Digital
Peter Billingham, a eulogy writer and busy funeral celebrant, noticed how many aspects of the funeral marketplace and methods went digital during the early days of the pandemic. Online funeral arrangements, choice of coffins, music, even booking a celebrant for the service using tools like YouCanBook.Me. This enabled funeral directors to see when their chosen celebrant was free to take a service and to make a booking straight away. Trading phone calls can waste precious time when a grieving family is waiting to complete arrangements. Some of these changes are here to stay.
Peter is also a writer for hire on digital trends in the funeral and end-of-life marketplace – sometimes called #Deathtech at Death Goes Digital and The Art of Memorialisation Newsletter. It is clear, he says, that many families experienced an ‘online funeral.’ Unable to be in attendance, family and friends would watch the funeral of a loved one over the internet. Yet most live-streaming services are not interactive, meaning those watching can only do just that.
Peter Billingham – Death Goes Digital
But not all ‘online funerals’ were so limited. Some families conducted funerals through video conferencing platforms – Facebook Live, Zoom and Skype, for example. The key difference being that from across the world, collaboration and interaction were possible in ways never seen before. This was a new evolution in funerals. It will take time to be fully accepted, but Peter believes that that time may come.
Enabling people to participate remotely in funeral services is an important development. Peter offers a bespoke online eulogy writing service. He is seeing an increase in family members buying eulogy packages, wanting to say something at the funeral but needing help to find the right words. For most people, speaking in public is difficult. Added to the emotional turmoil of losing a loved one, the idea of saying a ‘few words’ feels unachievable. However, contributing through video was not so daunting. Will this become more frequent? Peter thinks so.
Will the changes brought about by COVID, along with the impact of the CMA regulations for price transparency, generate an increasing demand for direct cremations followed by an online memorial service? Will we also see both happening simultaneously? Some crematoriums will live-stream the direct cremation so that the reception or celebration of life can be held elsewhere at the same time. Perhaps entrepreneurial event venues might see this as an opportunity to offer something revolutionary in the funeral marketplace? Places like Linden House and Le Gothique in London are answering the call for something slightly different and very much tailored to the individual.
Attitudes are Changing
According to the Farewill Death & US 2021 Report, attitudes towards death and dying and the type of service we would choose are changing. Whilst there are UK-wide variations, 66% of those surveyed in London and 62% in Wales said that they do not want a ‘traditional’ funeral service, with 43% in this category saying they ‘want their funeral to feel more like a celebration of life’.
The pandemic has certainly encouraged people to talk more openly about death and dying, with Gen Z leading the way. 74% of the 18-24 years olds surveyed by Farewill said they do not feel it is morbid to have these types of conversation.
Digital developments and changing attitudes will all feed into new ideas about the rituals, services and ceremonies following a death. Changes were already afoot, but the pandemic has accelerated this process. Ecological concerns about the environmental impact of death, particularly among the younger generations, will definitely help to shape what we see in the future. Online services have the added benefit of reducing the need for travel, with its heavy carbon footprint, and the rise in popularity of natural burial plus new, more ecologically-friendly methods of cremation will all play their part.
A Renewed Sense of Local Community
Before Covid we took for granted our freedom to get together with family and friends, to meet in large numbers pretty much wherever and whenever we wanted. Being unable to do this at a time when we needed it more than ever has highlighted the importance of gathering in person to comfort each other and to share memories.
Poppy Mardall, from Poppy’s Funerals, reflects in her blog Deathcare and Covid-19 – a lesson in hardship and compassion that ‘above all else, 2020 has deepened our understanding of the value of a good and meaningful funeral…Caring for the living and the dead with humility makes a tremendous difference to the way grieving people look back on their experience’. Adapting has been key and finding creative ways to make funerals meaningful under difficult circumstances has been the challenge.
And it has been lovely to see how endlessly creative people are. As Louise Winter of Poetic Endings notes in her book ‘We all know how this ends’, during Covid ‘communities came together in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime. People stood outside their homes in droves to honour the person in the hearse as it made its way to the crematorium’. The importance of supporting those who are grieving and sharing their pain is something that will endure. Services and ceremonies may change but, for most people, the need for them will remain.
The Little, But Important, Things We Missed
It is interesting to reflect on some of the more unexpected things that felt really hard during lockdown. Singing and live music was at times banned or serverely restricted during the pandemic and was greatly missed by so many.
There is something uplifting and cathartic about listening to a beautiful voice or instrumental piece, and coming together to sing a rousing or contemplative song connects people and reinforces the shared nature of their bereavement. I think many people found it really hard not being able to join in. It was only when we weren’t allowed to sing that we really recognised and missed its therapeutic and bonding effect.
Digitally Bring a Life Alive
In other areas too, we have seen new digital developments. We all carry technology around with us, so making the most of it makes sense. There are many types of digital and online memorial available, enabling friends and family to view and contribute photos, videos and tributes. This is a wonderful way to feel connected and share memories, particularly when we can’t do it in person.
An ingenious twist on this has been developed that will allow anyone with the right gadget to have quick and easy access to an online biography, with photos, videos and the story of their life. A Quick Response (QR) code can be cut into granite or metal and placed on memorial items or a headstone. Scan the code with your phone and their history is there in an instant.
This technology has been given the go ahead by Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge Town Council and will be used on memorials at Highbridge Cemetery, Burnham-on-Sea Cemetery and Brent Knoll Churchyard. To find out more go to QR memories.
Qr Memories feature on BBC’s The One Show
Recognising the Benefits of Planning Ahead
The pandemic has led to many tragic, sudden and unexpected deaths. Where once we might have brushed aside requests to think about and plan for our mortality, we now recognise that it is sensible to do so. Whether it is a light-hearted chat with loved ones about burial or cremation, or creating a more formal, comprehensive plan, it is good to get the conversation started.
Arranging a funeral when the wishes of the person who has died are not known can be stressful and distressing for those charged with the task. Having a conversation in advance and planning ahead of time is a sensible thing to do and can help avoid disputes and difficult decisions at a time when people are grieving. It can be reassuring for family and friends to know that they are celebrating your life in the way you wanted. Keeping a record can be done simply, written down in a Letter of Funeral Wishes, or kept digitally, together with other important documentation, in a digital vault or locker.
The pandemic has been a reminder of the fragility of life, both in the sense of our physical existence and of the smooth functioning of our complex society. But it has also shown us that we can adapt, change and respond in positive ways and has highlighted some of the things that matter – community, companionship, mutual support and togetherness.
One thing is for sure – death is always with us, but the ways families navigate the rituals and celebrations of a passing life may be changing.