Home / Ministry following a restricted funeral

Ministry following a restricted funeral

Table of Contents Share this page

Share an article by email

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

This resource is designed to support those who minister to the bereaved during and after the present conditions of lockdown and social distancing, including those who plan and officiate at funerals. Suggestions of additional resources, examples of good practice, and other suggestions are always welcome; and the webpage will as far as possible be kept up-to-date as circumstances change.

Funerals conducted under present conditions take place under several constraints.

  • Very few mourners (sometimes none) can be physically present at the funeral. Many more may be watching a livestream, but they are not aware of one another’s presence in the way that a physical congregation is.
  • There is no social gathering after the funeral.
  • Funerals cannot take place in church.
  • The length of time allowed for a funeral currently varies from one crematorium to another, and may be very brief (as little as 15 minutes in some cases).
  • Although a large and varied range of recorded music is available on the Obitus platform which most crematoria use, there is little opportunity for live music, and none at all for genuinely congregational hymn-singing.
  • Practices that are important in some cultures – such as having an open coffin, or having the family and friends of the deceased fill in the grave immediately after a burial – are not possible.

A funeral held under these constraints is called here a restricted funeral. All funerals are currently restricted funerals, whether or not Covid-19 was implicated in the person’s death, and so the scope of this webpage goes well beyond the direct victims of the pandemic, although they will of course be the central focus of many of the possible liturgies discussed here.

The constraints under which a restricted funeral is held create significant challenges, when one recalls the various purposes normally fulfilled by a funeral.  Some of these purposes are specific to a Christian funeral; others are universal.

  1. A body needs to be disposed of. This simple biological or physical act has been formalized and ritualized in every human culture, from the time of the Neanderthals.
  2. A social life needs to be brought to an end. Even when a person is biologically dead, they are not “socially dead” until rites have taken place to remove them from the (socially defined) category of the living to the category of the no-longer-living. In this sense, a person’s funeral is their last social engagement. The party or wake that follows the rite is an integral part of the social process, and the gathering of family and friends is, equally, fundamental to it.
  3. A funeral is an important point in the journey of the bereaved through the landscape of grief. The social closure in (2) helps them to move forward in the grieving process. The gathering of family and friends mobilises emotional resources to support them in the process.
  4. A funeral is an opportunity to celebrate and give thanks for a life (this also sometimes happens at a subsequent Memorial or Thanksgiving Service, where the element of thanksgiving becomes more prominent).
  5. In a Christian context, the deceased person is entrusted to the love and mercy of God.
  6. In a Christian context, the funeral is an opportunity to reflect on the Gospel, in the light of the life that has ended.
  7. Any funeral is a memento mori: it confronts those taking part with the fact of their own mortality.

Restricted funerals can accomplish (1), (5) and (7) perfectly well; may be able to accomplish some of (4) and (6); can only accomplish (3) to a limited extent; and can hardly accomplish (2) at all. This sets a challenge for ministers. It requires some planning of a continuing memorial process, after the funeral has taken place. It is important to remember that this need is the same, whatever the cause of death. Many funerals during the lockdown will be of victims of Covid-19; many will be of those for whom Covid-19 was a contributory cause among other causes; many will be of those whose death had nothing to do with the virus. It is the fact of their having had restricted funerals that is relevant.

As well as being (we hope) helpful to those ministering to the bereaved after a funeral restricted by the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the resources on this site may also be useful when the deceased have themselves chosen a ‘direct cremation’, and the bereaved feel deprived of the chance of a full leave-taking, or when a ‘DIY funeral’, or a funeral conducted by a secular celebrant, has taken place in such a way that some of the bereaved similarly feel that there has not been a “proper goodbye”.

It will be helpful to explore some of these possibilities with the bereaved at the same time as the funeral is being planned, so that the funeral is seen from the beginning as only the first part of a consciously designed process to mark the end of a life.  This process may be made up of multiple events, some more formal, and others less formal, even in the case of a single individual.

All these possibilities are set within three vectors:

  1. Of timing. As part of the government’s and House of Bishops’ phased lifting of lockdown, from 15 June 2020, funerals can be carried out in church buildings. The size and circumstance of the church will determine the maximum number that can be accommodated whilst also facilitating physical distancing, but numbers should be minimised as far as possible. The latest guidance is available online here. It will be a considerable time before social distancing has been relaxed to the point where a large-scale traditional memorial service, or Service of Thanksgiving, could be held in church.  It is important that ministers are realistic about what can be offered at any given time, and keep themselves well informed about the changing restrictions under which we have to work.  There is always the possibility too that restrictions previously lifted have to be reimposed.  Within these uncertain limits, particularly appropriate times to have a service for an individual will be on their birthday, on the anniversary of their death, in connection with the burial of their ashes, or when a gravestone is raised on their grave.
  2. Of the assessment of vulnerability of those taking part.
  3. Of what liturgical activity is permitted by the public health rules in force at the time of the event. There may, for example, be a considerable interval between churches being partially reopened for public worship, and it being allowed to sing hymns in them.

Existing liturgical resources for the time before and after a funeral can be adapted and supplemented to become simple and informal acts performed in a smaller space such as a home, either without a minister, or with a minister virtually present. They can also be reframed as acts of domestic remembrance. Additional information and resources are available here.

A more formal separate Service of Thanksgiving can be held when restrictions on gathering have been eased, as a way of bringing family and friends together more fully than was possible at the funeral, to mark the end of a life and to give thanks for it. Guidance and resources for planning such a service can be found here.

Flower display of Lilies

Group remembrances of the departed: Many churches already have services at which the faithful departed are remembered together each year, often in early November. Guidance and resources for adapting these to present circumstances can be found here.

When details of diocesan or national events become known, they will be posted here.

Books of remembrance, real and virtual.

  1. Remember Me is an Online Memorial Book for those who have died as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Book offers an online space for anyone in the United Kingdom, from all faiths and communities, to leave the name, short message about and photograph of their loved one.

Other useful resources for dealing with bereavement and grief, especially in conditions of trauma, include the below. Suggestions for additions are welcomed.

  • Jan Brind and Tessa Wilkinson Creative Ideas for Pastoral Liturgy: Funeral, Thanksgiving and Memorial Services. Canterbury Press, 2008
  • Donald Gray: Memorial Services. SPCK, 2002
  • Bill Kirkpatrick: Going Forth – A Practical and Spiritual Approach to Dying and Death. DLT, 1997 (co-creating services; anthology of prayers, readings and simple services)
  • Janet Morley: Our Last Awakening: poems for living in the face of death. SPCK, 2016 (includes a section on poems for Remembering and Celebrating; a helpful resource for bereavement generally)
  • Mark Oakley, Readings for funerals.  SPCK, 2015
  • Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild Human Rites, Mowbray 1995
  • CTBI Beyond our Tears, Church House Publishing 2004
  • www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk (useful resources, reflections, and accompanying book)
  • www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/the-ceremony/music-and-poetry (mix of useful material recommended by the Good Funeral Guide)
  • www.poetic-endings.com/unusual-funeral-poetry (an excellent collection of less usual material)
  • For guidelines and toolkits for commissioning individual works of art, the following websites are helpful:
    • www.churchofengland.org/more/church-resources/churchcare (advice from the Church of England Cathedrals and Church Buildings Division)
    • www.artandchristianity.org (advice from Art and Christianity)

Suggestions for additions to this are especially welcome!

Back
to top