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Funerals in a time of physical distancing

Oliver Waterhouse hears from Quakers about how funerals can be possible even with the current restrictions on gatherings.

Funerals can still be meaningful and supportive for everyone taking part. Image: <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/TSA01-5536419/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=2371209">TSA01</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=2371209">Pixabay</a>
Funerals can still be meaningful and supportive for everyone taking part. Image: TSA01 from Pixabay

Quaker funerals often have a different feel to other Christian celebrations marking the end of a person's life. They take the same simple, still form as a Quaker meeting for worship and are open to anyone who wants to gather to remember someone who has died.

A brief welcoming introduction is given after which anyone may speak into the silence. People might share a memory, a thought, a prayer or other helpful words. The silence can also be a strength that enables many to be with one another without the need to 'say' anything out loud.

"Sometimes all we can do is be alongside one another, holding each other in love. Such faithfulness is costly, and may itself require support." – Love and loss, Quaker Life 2016 (PDF)

It is hard going through bereavement, or supporting someone you love through bereavement, at the best of times. Physical distancing changes the ability to participate in a Quaker funeral or memorial meeting but these can still be meaningful and supportive for everyone taking part.

Arranging a funeral

After a death, the practicalities of arranging a funeral can take over all else, becoming numb with decision-making. Or grief can freeze us in our tracks. While we can't visit in person and offer a supportive shoulder, there are other ways that we can support people. One Quaker, who serves in a pastoral role with their meeting, said,

"We found it immensely helpful, with the permission of our friend, to have a WhatsApp group that included four F/friends locally, two from overseas and an overseer from their meeting. We were able to coordinate who had been in touch, what contact might be welcome when, whether anyone had taken food, what help was currently needed with admin and to give help with the funeral arrangements. This group made our help more useful but also gave us a chance to support each other as our own social networks were affected by social distancing. This care felt incredibly valuable."

As members of a family helping to prepare for a funeral it may just feel like an extra task to help people to prepare to join online. Do what you can and no more, the day is yours and you must be able to say goodbye and grieve for whoever you have lost.

Attending online might come in different forms for each funeral or individual. When held at a crematorium or other non-Quaker venue it may simply be a video-link which may or may not include sound. When funerals can be held in a Quaker meeting house again it may be possible for this to be more interactive using video conferencing technology. Friends may join in worship at a distance at the given time of the funeral using no technology. It may not be possible for people joining to participate as might be expected at an in-person funeral meeting for worship.

Attending a funeral

Being present for a funeral is a gift that cannot be given by everyone and attending can bring a range of emotions. How would you prepare for a funeral in person? Do you have a way of preparing that helps you to focus on the person who has died?

Whether joining online or in person try to go through the same process so that you are ready to centre down at the appropriate moment. Allow yourself the space to explore your relationship with the person who has died and allow grief to come to the surface. Are there people in your household or others you can talk with to share the loss?

Joining online

When present and waiting for the start of a funeral, reading the order of service can be helpful way to settle before the service begins. When there was no sound accompanying the video feed of an online funeral, one Quaker said,

"It was helpful to have an order of service in advance, so I could still listen to the music they were playing and read the readings. It gave a sense of which point they were at in the ceremony. It was done as a kind gesture by other Friends for those who were there, but I'd definitely try and get this circulated more widely in advance. It would be important in different ways to friends not there."

Just as when gathering in person funerals can be delayed. This can cause anxiety for those present or joining online. One person decided to join 'in spirit' when the livestream didn't work as expected:

"When the link didn't work, I decided to take part remotely at the same time as those present, by upholding at home. It felt more participatory and less like viewing to me, so I probably would have done that even if had known it would start."

Another found it helpful when there was a short delay:

"It was strange but helpful that the camera started while the previous funeral was taking place. It meant that I got to know the layout and the feel of venue, and also that the coffin was lowered rather than a curtain being drawn."

The glare of the camera may also be uncomfortable for people attending in person. Sitting out of the way may help with feeling less 'on show':

"The partner had sat in a place where they were not visible on camera during the meeting for worship, but I did notice them leave. Their sadness and grief was visible, which was an emotional thing to watch. I did think that their sitting out of the eye of the camera was a good idea, although I don't know if it was intentional or not."

Supporting as a faith community

Attending the funeral, whether in person or online, is not the only way to be supportive as a faith community. After a funeral everyone will have to leave and return to their isolation. An online memorial meeting or planning for one in person can be helpful when a gathered Quaker funeral cannot be held close to a person's death.

But it may also be a time when joining an online community may not be what close members of the family would like. People who have joined remotely might wish to connect with others to express their grief and enjoy their memories together. This Friend did not have the opportunity but suggests:

"If I were involved in another funeral remotely then I'd look into a Zoom hosted opportunity for some kind of tea and biscuits afterwards."

Quaker help

If you have questions about funerals you can find help online at www.quaker.org.uk/funerals where there is current information about holding funerals and memorial meetings. You can also ask for help by email to supportmeetings@quaker.org.uk or get in touch to share your experience.

Find help and information about holding funerals