Fond Farewells

As a Humanist Celebrant with the Fuze Foundation I have conducted funeral ceremonies in all sorts of locations and circumstances.

Since March, this has been particularly challenging, with the strict rules around social distancing brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown severely limiting the number of people able to attend funerals, which is causing additional grief and stress on families.

To help reassure families who might be facing those same circumstances over the coming weeks and months, until we get back to some sort of normality, whatever that is, I would like to share my experiences of the two funerals I have conducted over the past month to show that we can still give your loved ones a personal, respectful and fitting tribute, even in these unprecedented times.

Cemetery

The first funeral was to be a burial at the local cemetery. I had a lengthy discussion with the Funeral Director to clarify the revised guidelines before speaking to the family. The key changes are that the coffin is placed into the grave before the family gathers around, so no chords for family members, the maximum number of mourners is 25 and other than those living in the same household everyone should stand 2 metres away from each other.
The family visit was a bit different too – it was done via FaceTime. It felt odd not being able to hug and give comfort in a tactile way and this lack of personal contact is the hardest thing for most people. Despite that, I was able to get lots of information, memories, funny stories and anecdotes about their larger than life mum, who was a popular and fun loving lady, a big personality in the local community, loved her holidays, watching sport on tv, had lots of friends and most of all was devoted to her family. They were in shock at her sudden death. She was 82, living independently in her own home, in good health and looking forward to her next holiday. Under normal circumstances it would have been a huge funeral, with hundreds of mourners and a big wake afterwards. They were upset that their “wee mummy” couldn’t get that big send-off they felt she deserved but I reassured them we would do our absolute best to make sure her funeral reflected their love and respect for her and would not be cut short in time or content.
Drafting the funeral ceremony was no different to “normal” containing a life timeline, all those personal and funny stories shared by the family, poetry and music specially selected by them, capturing their mum’s personality.
On the day of the funeral the hearse, containing the coffin topped with a beautiful floral tribute, left from the family home and all the neighbours stood in their gardens to applaud, in respect, while a friend’s teenage daughter played the bagpipes – a sign of how loved and respected their mum was and the family was really touched.
At the graveside, the mourners were well spread out, so I had to project my voice well to ensure everyone could hear. There were tears and laughter as I told Moira’s story, we listened to her favourite music and the family even sprinkled sugar into the grave (she was obsessed in case she ran out of sugar, always had a huge supply at home and the family wanted to make sure she took some with her on her journey). The family released balloons and there was some community singing at the end as we celebrated two of her great loves – Bo’ness and Rangers – with The Fair Song and Penny Arcade – making sure the family felt uplifted as they left the cemetery.

Crematorium

The second funeral, at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh, was for an 84 year old gentleman who had died in hospital after a fall. Again, I spoke to the Funeral Director to establish the revised rules and regulations. The maximum number of mourners able to attend the funeral was 12, with social distancing maintained throughout, and the coffin would be placed on the catafalque in the crematorium and remain there, uncovered throughout the ceremony.
I had a Zoom call with the gentleman’s 2 sons and daughter, all living in separate houses, again getting facts and information about his life, his interests, hobbies and characteristics, happy memories and funny stories. This is more difficult than a face to face meeting where you can pick up on body language and nuances and the conversation flows easier, but we managed to keep the conversation as natural as possible in the circumstances. Their mum lives in a Nursing Home in Glasgow so wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral but they gathered information and stories from her, shared the draft script of the ceremony and provided more details and other anecdotes that really personalised the tribute. His elderly brother also sent a full and concise story of their early life, growing up living in lighthouses across northern Scotland. Again, the family chose fitting music and both sons agreed to read poems – one written by their mum and the other about lighthouse keepers, in recognition of 3 generations of their family working for the Northern Lighthouse Board.
The immediate family gathered at the Crematorium, where chairs had been removed from the Chapel, leaving only 12, spaced out to meet social distancing rules. We all used the hand sanitiser placed at the door as we entered and left. The ceremony, which lasted a full 30 minutes and was packed with stories that reflected Eddie’s long and interesting life, was filmed and “live streamed” which meant his wife, brother and other close family and friends (from as far afield as Spain) unable to attend the funeral were able to watch it live.
The hearse passed Easter Road on its way to the Crematorium, in recognition of Eddie’s lifelong love of Hibs Football Club, and the music at the end of the ceremony was Sunshine on Leith by the Proclaimers, which struck a chord with everyone.

After each funeral I sent the family an edited version of the ceremony script, complete with a lovely photo of their parent that they’d sent me, which they were then able to share with friends and family not able to attend the funeral as well as having as a keepsake of the day.

In times like these, it’s important to look for what we can do rather than focus on what we can’t and sometimes it’s these little things that give families the greatest comfort as they come to terms with the loss of their loved ones. I hope you will agree that sharing my experiences of these two funerals show that even during a pandemic we can still give them a fitting, loving and respectful send off.

Marjorie Russell