'Sad it ended that way' - How the funeral industry dealt with the pandemic

A funeral in covid

A graveside service by Thornalley Funeral Services - Credit: Thornalley Funeral Services

During a year that has seen thousands around the globe struggle through an unprecedented pandemic, grieving families have been some of the hardest hit. 

Navigating funeral arrangements while battling with lockdowns, restrictions, and social distancing has been an extra heartbreak too many have faced. 

There have been bans on singing at services and travelling in limousines, restricted mourner numbers and the inability to host wakes. 

Since restrictions were put in place at the end of March last year, some 700,000 funerals have taken place across the United Kingdom. 

Research by the Church of England in January found that since then, four out of 10 people surveyed had experienced the death of someone close to them, while seven in 10 people had missed out attending a funeral because of Covid-19. 

With funeral attendance such a key part of the grieving process, can the true impact on the bereaved and funeral industry be measured - or will its effect be felt for years to come? 

We look at how our funeral industry reacted to the pandemic and the impact on those who have lost loved ones. 

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Reacting and adapting 

Funeral directors across Norfolk, Waveney, and north Suffolk have been working tirelessly to reassure grieving families while organising thoughtful services that uphold traditional values. 

A funeral

A graveside service by Thornalley Funeral Services - Credit: Thornalley Funeral Services

Andrew Thornalley, company and funeral director of Thornalley Funeral Services, in King’s Lynn, a family-run firm of almost 40 years, said it had been hard to adapt, especially while ensuring everyone’s safety. 

He admitted feeling “heartbroken” when explaining to families they were not always able to have what they wanted. 

He said: “It's been hard on us all, but it's been far harder for the bereaved families." 

Married couple, Andrew and Anna Everitt, lost their mother and father, respectively, within weeks of each other earlier this year. Both were in their 90s and passed away with Covid at hospital. 

Mrs Everitt, of North Wootton, near King's Lynn, explained that although Thornalley Funeral Services organised a “wonderful service”, being unable to share memories with loved ones after had the biggest impact. 

“They both had a lovely life and they did not deserve to go in the way they did," she said.

“Unlike when we lost our other parents' years before, this time we were unable to be with them when they died or visit them in death. 

“It’s something about that closure, when you see someone you love for yourself for the final time, it starts the grieving process – but we could not do that. 

“We had to put our trust in everyone that they would be looked after.” 

A Dereham resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, arranged a cremation during the pandemic for his aunt who died at the age of 91 in December last year. 

Although he had arranged a funeral before, he said the extra restrictions meant his aunt's friends and family were unable to say goodbye in the way they would have liked. 

He added: “The worst thing for me was not being able to have a wake and to celebrate her life. 

"It’s sad because after the funeral it just wasn't the same. Moving on after from something which was emotional, and just saying goodbye at the end rather than going to a place to talk about her life, was hard.

“It’s just sad that it ended that way.” 

Rise in demand 

An increase in demand for funerals drove changes to the way they were carried out.

Jordan Young, funeral director and owner of Jordan Young Independent Funeral Home, in Dereham, said that had sparked a rise in more cost-effective and simplistic direct cremations and graveside burials. 

Jordan Young, 22, who is preparing to open his own Funeral Home at Dereham, Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Jordan Young - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

"I believe this has been heavily influenced by the restriction of 30 mourners,” he said. “As well as the fact many felt uncomfortable travelling to services and preferred the idea of a memorial to be held at a later date.” 

Mr Young also acknowledged that the ban on affiliated services, such as acquiring limousines and holding wakes, made it “extremely difficult” for the bereaved but that the use of technology had been “invaluable”. 

Church of England research shows around four in 10 funerals were live-streamed during the pandemic and, of the people who watched one, more than two-thirds said they felt it was a good idea.  

Mr Young said live-streaming had proven to be an "invaluable" way for mourners to say their final goodbyes. 

The challenges during a pandemic 

Anne Beckett-Allen, funeral director of Rosedale Funeral Home, which has seven branches across Norfolk and Suffolk, said it was the third lockdown when the business really felt the impact of the pandemic. 

Richard Barber - Historian/Author

Anne and Simon Beckett-Allen of Rosedale - Credit: Richard Barber - Historian/Author & Sylvaine Poitau Photography 2013

“During the first two lockdowns, we didn’t really notice an increase in funerals," she said.

“The information we’d been given was to expect a peak in the number of deaths over Easter 2020, but we weren’t really any busier than we would usually be. 

“However, the winter has been a very different story and it has been quite overwhelming.”  

Mrs Beckett-Allen said the increase had posed new challenges for the industry, including having to hold meetings with families over Zoom, and hand delivering documents to less tech-savvy customers.

“The social distancing part has been really hard as we would have often hugged our families or shook their hand, and now we have to stay two metres away from everyone which makes it harder to convey your care," she said.

Funeral homes have also had to record the details of everyone who is invited for track and trace, supporting families who have had to make the difficult decision on who to invite - with the threat of a £10,000 fine for exceeding numbers.

That has made some families decide "they would rather not have anyone attend than choose who to miss off," according to Mrs Beckett-Allen.

A funeral

A funeral - Credit: CHRIS BISHOP

Other challenges mirror those of businesses across the country.  

Large numbers of staff have had to shield or carry out home schooling duties, and some have been unable to work from home for various reasons. 

Was the government right to impose a maximum number? 

One of the earliest challenges faced at the start of lockdown was the continuously changing regulations that meant families would have to be informed of new guidelines in between arranging the funeral and the burial or cremation actually taking place. 

Constantly changing the rules was not sustainable either for the bereaved or businesses, explained Mrs Beckett-Allen. 

“Although it is very hard to stomach, the cap of 30 has given stability to everyone,” she said. 

“Having said that, it didn’t always feel logical, as when places of worship opened up, you could have much larger gatherings in large venues, but not if a coffin was present."

Positives 

As well as the use of technology, other aspects of funeral arrangements have become popular. 

Funeral photography and videography have increased, as well as keepsakes such as pieces of jewellery. 

Mrs Beckett-Allen said one family made a wreath out of handprints from everyone that would have otherwise attended the funeral, while another had a wreath planted with bulbs that would put their roots down into the grave and become an everlasting tribute.

A funeral service during Covid restrictions

A funeral service during Covid restrictions - Credit: CHRIS BISHOP

She also cited communities standing outside their homes to pay their last respects as the cortege walks past as “really moving”. 

“People like the doctors, coroners, clergy and registrars have also been overwhelmed, but there has been a real sense of everyone pulling together to support the community and it has been a supportive environment to work in," she said.

“Sometimes by being forced to thinks of ways to overcome the restrictions, the end result has been really special."

When will restrictions change? 

The legal limit of 30 mourners will be removed as part of the next stage of lockdown easing on May 17.

Instead, the capacity will be determined by how many people venues can safely accommodate. 

Aiden Phillips, senior funeral director at Central England Co-op Funeralcare, said the industry was looking forward to going above and beyond to make every send-off special. 

“As rules continue to be relaxed, we will work closely with families to support celebrating the lives of their loved ones by helping to plan memorial events and celebrations of life," he said.

  • If you are struggling after a bereavement, call Cruse Bereavement Care on 0808 808 1677 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm) or visit the website www.cruse.org.uk 

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