A funeral during the coronavirus pandemic

Those looking for business wisdom or thoughts on qual research, don’t read on: in this post I’m sharing a personal experience. It’s just one tiny tile in this national and global mosaic of coronavirus experience, but an extraordinary one – and perhaps worth sharing for that reason.

My Mum, Phyllis Riley, died aged 90 on 18th March in a dementia care home called Rosebank in Bampton, Oxfordshire. Not of coronavirus, thank God; the death certificate states ‘old age’ as main cause of death. It was a short illness that took her and we’re grateful for that. I was there with her at the end and, really, we couldn’t have hoped for a more peaceful end to her long life. I loved her hugely of course and always will. I wanted to record for the moment, though, the strange experience I have just had, of just how different dealing with a death is during this coronavirus crisis.

I visited Rosebank every day in her last week. This was a special dispensation for my brother and me, because my mother was dying. Children and the wider circle of relatives were strongly advised not to visit the home, as coronavirus there could be particularly devastating. So my kids were not able to see Granny in her final days. Perhaps that was a blessing in a way.

Every time I arrived at the home, I was directed to the hand sanitiser and then taken into the office, where I had my temperature checked with a thermometer that was held close to but not touching my forehead.

I have two brothers, Mark in Bradford-on-Avon and Neil in Brooklyn, New York. Neil, her first-born, was unable to fly over to see mum before she died, as flights back to the US had stopped. So he has had to watch from afar and wait for news. Skype has helped a bit, but he is finding her death really difficult to process.

Every day when I got home from Rosebank after visiting her on Rosebank, there was fresh news of the world going into a spiral, including my own livelihood facing existential threat. It was dizzying – just too much. If anything, my Mum’s bedside, where I could talk to her as she slept and read her poetry, was a haven of peace.

After her passing, in normal times I might have exchanged hugs with the carers looking after her, but of course there was nothing like that. When I left the lovely old building, I’d have liked to think I’d return in a day or two to have a chat and reminisce and just be around the place, maybe sit in the beautiful walled garden. But now my presence there was non-essential and it felt wrong to bring any risk of coronavirus to the home. So when I left on the morning of my mother’s death, that was it. I may not be back to say hello for six months or more, who knows?

I thought about buying a chocolate and treats hamper as a thank you to the fantastic carers at Rosebank. But would the hamper bring a risk of coronavirus? In the end I went for it. I just hope it was delivered with minimal contact. But should I have?

Two days later on Friday 20th March, I was in Bampton again, this time just past the 12th Century church they used to film some of Downton Abbey, to collect the doctor’s medical certificate. There was a line of tape on the floor a metre or so back from the reception desk at the doctor’s, and I stood behind it. The receptionist wore gloves to handle the envelope she passed over to me.

On Monday 23rd I had to attend Oxford Register Office to register the death – face to face. This surprised me. But they handled it well. I sat at a distance from the receptionist – after more hand gel – and when a couple arrived after me, they were directed away to another waiting area. In the registrar’s office, I sat well back; she passed me the pen, which I needed to sign off the documentation, with a tissue and then applied sanitiser to it.

By now plans for the ‘funeral’ were under way. In inverted commas because really, this was not a funeral as I had ever imagined it. Mum’s wishes had been to be buried in my Dad’s grave in Carnmoney Cemetery in Northern Ireland. The funeral was to have been over there. But by this stage, there was no prospect of having a funeral gathering there, even if the process of flying my mum’s body over there for burial had been appropriate, which it wasn’t. There might soon be big over-demand on morgue and funeral services, if Italy was anything to go by. So we switched to a local cremation.

Funerals are one of the excepted category of public events that are allowed to continue (unlike weddings). But the maximum number allowed at a funeral is six. This meant we couldn’t bring all of my brother’s and my family along had we wanted to, and within a day or two of mum’s death we had decided we didn’t want to anyway, given the risks of coronavirus. And we thought it best to ask that no one from Rosebank attend either, for safety reasons. So only my brother and I attended South Oxfordshire Crematorium on Thursday 26th March.

We were told we would not be able to touch the coffin; and if we arrived early, we were to sit in our cars rather than come into the building.

When the time came, we were directed to the hand sanitiser and led inside by the two funeral directors from Godfrey & Son of Stanton in the Vale. My brother put some flowers on top of the coffin, but forgot to remove the plastic wrapping. But as we couldn’t touch the coffin, we had to just leave them as they were. We walked in to Song of the Angel by John Tavener.

We had no vicar. This was partly due to coronavirus – we didn’t feel it was right to wait the extra few days until the vicar became available as the disease risk might be so much greater by then – but also Mum didn’t really believe in God and nor do we. So we took at as a sign from the God that doesn’t exist that we should create our own ceremony without anyone officiating.

I think it was rather beautiful in its own way. But it consisted of my brother and I reading things out to each other and sharing a few reminiscences.

I read Field of Vision by Seamus Heaney, which reminded me of Drumnaboy, the farm near Strabane in Co. Tyrone where Mum grew up; and The Trees by Philip Larkin, a meditation on life, death and renewal. I audio-recorded it on my iPhone to share with our brother in Brooklyn. Debussy’s Clair de Lune played Mark and me out.

No drinks afterwards, no funeral banquet – nothing. My brother and I got in our cars and drove to our respective homes, where we washed our hands immediately on entering the house.

There will be a proper funeral for Mum in Northern Ireland, but when, we don’t know. When it happens, it will be her ashes that will return there, not her body.

Really, we’ve been unaffected by coronavirus in many ways. My mum didn’t get the virus, none of my family has it. Mum died and we said goodbye to her. But it was distinctly other-worldly. Maybe that’s fitting for Mum; she was quite an other-worldly figure at times; but a genuinely amazing person. I’ll always miss her.

Here’s the Larkin poem. I wonder if it has a wider resonance for this strange, beautiful, world-changing Spring?

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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