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Ethical funeral providers seek new ways to say goodbye under lockdown

REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Sarah Shearman
As those bereaved by the coronavirus seek to say goodbye to loved ones in lockdown, ethical funeral providers are finding new ways to help them to grieve and connect from a distance.

Many countries have severely restricted the number of people attending funerals or stopped ceremonies altogether, leaving families to watch live streams or plan memorials for later.

Distancing measures have "utterly deprived" people of human contact when they need it most, said social entrepreneur Liz Rothschild, a funeral celebrant and co-founder of Westmill Woodland Burial Ground in the south of England.

"The separation, isolation, no opportunity to say goodbye in person is the absolute opposite of the more modern approach to funerals and bereavement grieving," she said.

"As individuals, we don't want to feel alone in our grief."

The natural burial ground Rothschild founded in 2010 as a social enterprise - a business with a mission to do good - is at its finest at this time of year, covered in white cowslip flowers.

It had to close to visitors for a period, and now operates under restrictions. Since March, it has hosted funerals with just a handful of people, who are forced to stand apart.

For those who cannot be there in person, Rothschild has suggested ways to mark the occasion, such as lighting a candle and sitting quietly with a picture of the person, planting a tree or laying down flowers.

"They can still find ways to (say goodbye) creatively and imaginatively - I do believe that ritual can help us," she said.

Social enterprises have emerged around the world in recent years as a flexible alternative to expensive funeral providers that upsell extras such as flowers and cars, pushing some grieving families into debt.

Ethical providers offering cheaper options report seeing higher interest during the coronavirus pandemic, while traditional businesses are struggling.

Britain's largest funeral provider, Dignity, said its profit fell 11% in the first quarter as customers looked to spend less.

Australian funeral organiser and social entrepreneur Marc Allison helped establish Salvo Funerals in 2017 to offer compassionate services at a lower cost, with profits going to the Salvation Army charity.

Although Australia has had far fewer Covid-19-related deaths than Britain, Allison said social distancing requirements had created demand for simpler services.

To adapt, he suggests mourners read tributes from people who cannot be there and attendees - both in person and online - wear a colour or item that reminds them of that person.

"The crisis is forcing us to rethink the deep needs of grieving families," he said.

"Families need to make culturally unusual decisions. If there's to be a funeral, who should they invite? How do they interact with people on the day of the service if restrictions prevent them from hugging?"

All over the world, there has been a rise in streaming funerals and in online memorial sites to compensate for not be able to gather together.

In China and Taiwan, websites have been set up to enable virtual tomb-sweeping, an annual tradition of tending to ancestral graves.

But virtual grieving has its downsides, from having to grapple with new technology to the absence of human touch.

"Personally the only thing I want when I'm sad is to hug someone or hold hands," said Nora Menkin, executive director of the Co-op Funeral Home of People's Memorial in Seattle.

"It will be really interesting to see what the long-term effects of this isolation are on someone who is grieving."

The funeral home, which is run as a not-for-profit co-operative and offers simple, lower-cost services, usually sees business slow in spring following the winter peak, but this year has been busy.

The United States has the highest reported death rate from COVID-19, at more than 80,000 and some of the country's earliest confirmed cases occurred in Seattle.

More people are choosing lower-cost options such as direct cremation, without a service or people in attendance, which starts at about $800, said Menkin.

The median cost of a funeral and cremation in the United States is about $5,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

As countries start to relax lockdown restrictions, ethical funeral providers are eager to see which of these changes endure.

In Britain, where Covid-19 has claimed more than 32,000 lives, churches closed in March and funerals are only permitted at the graveside or crematorium, with immediate family only.

But an easing on restrictions to allow small-scale funerals in churches was discussed by the House of Bishops - part of the Church of England's ruling body - at a virtual meeting this month.

For now, Australia's Allison has suggested people opt for a simple funeral, with a memorial service at a later stage.

But he believes the rise in basic funerals is temporary and they will be "richer and longer" after the crisis as people appreciate spending more time together after a period of social distancing.

"Funerals and memorial services have brought us together in the past," he said. "I think they will be opportunities to bring us closer together in the future."

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