My schooling was in anthropology and social studies, basically how to understand the different aspects of society that make it a culture. No matter what historical or contemporary culture we studied, end of life rituals have always been an important part of every tradition. In fact, it has been found in archaeological digs that burial traditions are some of our oldest expressions as humans. Modern day humans continue to practice wildly diverse death ceremonies, but for the most part what they have in common is they are in-person events where communities can come together physically. Now that Covid-19 has overtaken much of the planet, these traditions are simply no longer available and are in some case illegal, but one thing is for sure, there is a lot of death surrounding us these days.
Through the small amount of research I have been conducting over the past few days I have learned quite a bit, but mostly about what is not possible or not happening. From this video I learned that even several weeks ago when numbers weren’t so high and concentrated, it was already difficult to get a priest in to give Last Rites. I was also made aware that families cannot touch and say goodbye to their loved ones who are infected which is having a devastating impact on those left behind. Here in Washington State we already have a ban on funerals. As of 3 days ago the BBC was reporting that all of Ghana has gone into mourning.
All of this has me thinking, with a collapsing social structure, what will be done in the short term to meet these needs and also how will this sift death rituals in our societies forever? I have been reaching out to funeral experts who say they are not yet sure what will come next, but something has to. I asked them what new traditions are taking over and within the last day I have been told that nothing has really taken hold yet, but an attempt towards virtual services is being made. A new friend of mine who is an operations manager at a local synagogue shared with me that the virtual community gatherings that she is already facilitating are in part being hosted to get people comfortable with connecting in that way. She anticipated losing more members to the virus, as they have already lost one member, and she wants everyone to be comfortable with Zoom and the like for when they have to start hosting memorials electronically. Here is an article about how this is already taking shape in California - Death during a pandemic: virtual shiva and funerals without mourners.
I was taught by the funeral directors that currently the fear is surrounding safety and proper handling of the bodies which require additional photographic documentation due to no next-of-kin being able to identify them and witness where they get buried or cremated. Everything is still very mathematical, strategic and impersonal which makes sense because there is just no other way right now. At this point there is more concern about keeping people alive, not about the dead and their communities. But the directors were hopeful that a combination of new virtual traditions and the possibility of hosting gatherings at a later date would be sufficient. I have been speaking to green or natural death service providers and I am inspired to think about all of the possibilities available. There are so many ways to honor the dead and in the West we are just getting started down the road to creating ceremonies that we truly benefit from. There is a lot to learn from each other and this is as good as time as any to take by our end of life traditions, move away from Victoriana options that don’t usually allow people proper grieving anyway and move forward to a better relationship with death and loss. Here is a great Tedx Talk where Claire and Ru discuss the beautiful experiences they have been creating for people - Death, grief, ritual and radical funerals | Claire & Rupert Callender | TEDxTotnes
Along with the change in funeral traditions, I keep thinking about how inevitable the PTSD following this collective trauma appears to be. If people do not have healthy ways to express their feelings, especially fear and loss, there will be long term consequences. How we navigate these times as one human family is going to make all the difference to how we remember it. I have hope because people are often resilient and creative, adaptable in the worst of times. If we can come together, create new traditions and honor our experiences we just might be alight in some ways even though we can never bring back those we will lose.
I don’t know exactly what will happen next, mostly because I am new to this subject but also because no one really knows much about anything right now. What I am sure of though is that there are a lot of wonderful people right now who are doing everything they can to provide dignity to the dying and support for those left behind because that is what they do, it is what they have done and will continue to do. As for me, I will continue to watch what happens, talk to my current contacts as well as make more and maybe create more content. I have thought about hosting a group chat with various people from this industry. I have also thought of hosting some sort of online non-denominational service of my own for those grieving so I became a certified minister. Only time will tell.
If you have any thoughts on this subject, would like to be in the future group chat or have resources and answers I can add to this article people email me at RebeccaEWebber@gmail.com.
Claire & Ru from The Green Funeral Company
Rosie from The Natural Death Center
Morgan at Kadima Reconstructionist Community
Why we need end-of-life rituals
Five death rituals to give you a new view on funerals
Coronavirus is posing special challenges for those trained to help the dying and their families
Grieving alone — coronavirus upends funeral rites
Funerals Must Change In This Time Of Social Distancing
Virtual Memorials | Encyclopedia of Death and Dying
Coronavirus: Funeral homes adjust to smaller ceremonies
Death during a pandemic: virtual shiva and funerals without mourners
Virtual Memorials and No Hugs: The Funeral Industry Prepares for Coronavirus