Planning my mum’s funeral during Covid-19

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I suppose it goes with the territory but, as a funeral director, I had been planning the details of my Mum’s funeral for nearly three years. Ever since her third cancer diagnosis was announced I had started drafting my eulogy to her as I walked around the park with my kids, or daydreamed over coffee: making notes, thinking of readings, trying to sum up the impossible enormity of what she meant to me.

I took inspiration from the amazing families we support at work, who have crafted thoughtful, beautiful funerals despite their exhausted and depleted states. I approached things that seemed easy enough over lunch, with my Dad nearby listening. We chatted about hymn choices, flowers, what she included in her mum’s coffin, poets that meant something to her. If I, a funeral director, couldn’t talk about death and funerals with my family how could I ever hope that other people might?

I mused over how I would make things personal so that the day was clearly about the incredible woman my Mum really was.

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She coped with the relentless treatments stoically and with courage, going on a much longed-for adventure to Iran less than a year ago. Then things started to get serious quickly and her treatment didn’t slow the pace of the disease anymore. Her symptoms were hard to cope with but she was still determined to do the things that were important to her right up to the end: Pilates class with her neighbours on Mondays, French class in town on Thursdays, her monthly book club. Then, suddenly, her death approached with a rapid speed which, despite all the love, luck and support we could have hoped for, steamroller-ed us all.

Her death was fast and furious at times (appropriately enough as she could be like that in life) but in so many ways we were incredibly fortunate. Her care had been so carefully managed by the team of experts from St Christopher’s Hospice, with her wishes, hopes, and fears at the centre of everything. She died at home, in her own bed, with her devoted husband peacefully asleep beside her, and me camping in my old bedroom upstairs.

In the morning, the sun flooded into her bedroom and illuminated her beautiful expression and glorious skin. Her adoring grandchildren came to see her and say their goodbyes. We wrestled with the sharp reality of her death with the relief that it was, at least, over for her. But the looming clouds of the Covid-19 pandemic were firmly on the horizon and would turn our best laid plans for her funeral upside down.

The effects of the pandemic crept up on us. At first, in those early days of grief, we floated around thinking of the timing of things, readings, beautiful pieces of music that might help sum her up. Haunted by insomnia, I spent some sleepless nights digging out all of the notes I’d made about what she meant to me and all the clumsy ways I tried to express it. And then, bit by bit, we realised that things were changing fast. Although no firm rules had been put in place, we knew we couldn’t possibly ask 200 or more of my parents’ friends and relatives (the vast majority of whom are over 60) to join us at her funeral.

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My father, a doctor, who spent his entire career devoted to general practice in our community, couldn’t bear the idea that so many people might feel they should come and put themselves and others at risk. It was too awful a thought, when things were awful enough already. Then my father developed a temperature and dry cough, and things really crumbled. We kept ourselves at home with two beautiful but busy children who struggled to understand all the turmoil. We were brutally separated from my grieving father, we were exhausted and scared, and the plans for the funeral needed a total overhaul.

My amazing colleagues at Poppy’s calmed and soothed us. Yes, we could find a way for me to come and see my mum, to hold and kiss her and whisper the poetry I had chosen into her ear. Yes, I could play the music we had planned to have performed live in our Friends and Family room with her. No, I wouldn’t be risking anyone’s health or safety. It would all be sorted out.

As the day of the funeral approached, Dad and I sat next to each other and ruled almost everyone in our small family out of attending because it protected them. She was an extraordinarily loved, admired and much-missed figure in so many lives, but the responsibility of being there for her last journey fell to the five of us. It would be me, my husband and two little children, and my Dad, and our wonderful team from Poppy’s who, for me, felt like an extension of my family. To keep everyone safe, my Mum’s coffin would be carefully carried in by the professionals, the priest would lead the way, and we would bring up the rear at a proper distance. Then it would just be us.

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It was hard and heartbreaking. We couldn’t help to carry her coffin. We couldn’t shake the hand of the lovely priest who guided us gently through the process. We weren’t actively supported, soothed, touched and held by the hundreds of friends and family who wanted to be there, standing shoulder to shoulder with us. The words of one of our clients rang in my ears as she bravely carried her mother’s coffin: “she carried me into the world so the least I can do is help to carry her out of it”. Despite having done this for 100s of people I didn’t know and never would, I couldn’t do that most simple and practical physical act of support for my own mother.

But the sun shone, the kids whizzed around the crematorium, squealing with laughter, the wind in their hair. We were serenaded by birdsong, which couldn’t have been a better accompaniment as Mum was a wizard birdwatcher and taught the kids how to identify blackbirds and woodpeckers. Then The Kinks’ “Days” started up and my Mum’s coffin was gently carried into the crematorium building – empty of people, but full of love for us all, shining from the handful of people there with us, and buoyed by the knowledge that so many people were taking time at 2pm that day to think of my luminous, powerful, formidable, bright, beautiful, courageous mother.

Some people feel strongly that very small, socially-distanced funerals might lead to too much anguish and heartache. I disagree. It certainly wasn’t the funeral that we had originally planned but we felt like the centre of the world for a moment or two, and we had the privacy and peace to really be ourselves. Yes, we have saved up the eulogies about how she taught us how to love and how to be resilient, the wistful poems, Welsh hymns and glorious flowers for a memorial service in October – on what would have been her 70th birthday. But what we did together that day has a real importance, simplicity and power, which soothes us in our pain and for which we are all so grateful.

I don’t share this story to in any way reduce or ignore the pain some families are feeling right now. It is hard enough to face organising a funeral of someone you love, but it is acutely so when your options are so curtailed by circumstances out of your control. I hope my words and experiences help support people like me find beauty and meaning in the private, the peaceful, and the small. These qualities don’t mean that she wasn’t loved, respected and adored. The emptiness of the room doesn’t mean that we are alone in our grief, or abandoned.

At the moment, these goodbyes have to take a different shape and that’s okay. We are safe, we are loved and she is remembered.

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