Working as a Funeral Celebrant and Undertaker in the Time of Covid

I interviewed Angela Ward, who co-runs Go Simply Funerals with her husband Kevin, about her work as a funeral celebrant and undertaker just before the Covid outbreak. Obviously our world has dramatically changed since then. As Angela and Kevin are at the sharp-end of death I wanted to catch up with her again to find out about how Covid is impacting the funeral industry and her experience of working with care homes.

Sue: Seven weeks ago, you were working under normal circumstances as a funeral celebrant and undertaker. But I imagine things are very different now.

Angela: Yes, they certainly are. The reaction I noticed in the beginning was resistance. For example, objecting to the new rules of limiting numbers at funerals. The reaction was, ‘What do you mean we can only have 10 people – what about the rest of my family?’ or ‘Why can’t we carry the coffin?’

People were fighting every inch of the way. There was such a sense of disbelief, shock and lack of acceptance. But I think this has moved on to other feelings that are associated with grief – bargaining, depression or denial. Yet people are also trying to work around things in another way. I have been with families who say they will have a gathering or celebration instead later in the summer so they can have the funeral they want. Or just opting for a direct cremation so they don’t have to deal with any of it. But you know, there’s a big time-gap opening up here between the person dying and the ‘funeral.’ They imagine they will hold some kind of funeral service in the future, but I can guarantee that 75% of them won’t, because the moment has passed. A memorial service is not the same as a funeral.

Sue: This is a very disjointed and fractured way to experience grief.

Angela: It certainly is. In fact, it is an unprecedented situation. Never before in the history of funerals have numbers been limited like this. A recent article in the Guardian outlines how people seem to have put their hands up and said, ‘Okay if I can’t have the funeral I want for my father/mother/husband/wife/daughter/son, I am not going to bother. I just can’t deal with it. How am I expected to choose 10 people to come to his/her funeral?’ So, they decide to have a direct cremation instead with no funeral at all. The thoughts of having a ceremony unsupported by friends and family is just too painful.

So, there’s very little light and not much of the celebration in funerals at the moment. In addition, funerals have become the pinch point for people to express not just the grief of someone they love dying, but the general anxiety and sadness with everything else that’s going on with the Covid crisis. I’ve seen a profound cathartic wailing, even hysteria at funerals in the last couple of weeks that I’ve never seen before at a British funeral.

Sue: What’s the impact that this Covid crisis is having on you personally and professionally?

Angela: Our work is all about intimacy. However, we can no longer have face-to-face meeting with our families. We now speak with them via the internet or on the phone. I find this really difficult. I miss that sense of deep connection; of being in someone’s home and sharing their life with them. For me, the zoom conversation is kind of unsatisfying.

My husband Kevin says we are having all the risk, but not really having the reward because we can’t develop the same kind of relationship with people who we are looking after – we love to climb in with our families in their place of grief. It is a very real, special place, and an honour to share something very profound – that’s our job. But this can’t happen in the same way with social distancing.

We’ve just had VE day, and it made me realise that even during the war when there were huge numbers of death, there wasn’t this sense of having to pull away from our natural instincts to comfort, which is really painful for both those grieving and for those wanting to give support. Yes, it’s very painful for everyone involved.

Sue: I can really understand that. But I guess people aren’t just facing the grief of someone dying, they are also facing the death of their way of life, of losing their job, of living with the fear of losing their house if they can’t start making repayments once their mortgage ‘holiday ‘is over. Of being saddle with monumental debts. I don’t think we have even begun to understand the impact that these losses are having on us or our grieving process.

Angela: Absolutely. As I said, the funerals taking place at the moment are the pinch points for everything everybody is feeling. When people start expressing their grief, it’s like the magic trick where you are pulling hankies out of your mouth. Once you start pulling the hankies keep coming. It feels as if there’s a kind of ‘Weltschmerz’ happening – not just about the grief and loss they are experiencing, but so much more. Although I believe it’s a good thing to have this emotional outlet, sadly there is no real opportunity to talk about it afterwards or share it with the community at a wake.

Sue: This limitation in numbers is obviously causing distress to many families, but can you see anything good coming out of this?

Angela: Yes, most certainly. I took part in a Death Café a couple of days ago, and we spoke about how some very positive and even brilliant things are happening. For example, families are now taking ownership of the funeral. They don’t feel they have to perform or ‘get it right’ or for it to be perfect. They don’t have to worry about crying in front of a crowd of other mourners, so there’s no longer a need for the stiff upper lip. In fact, one of the crematoriums reported back to me that many more families are taking on the funeral themselves. Their attitude is: ‘We can do it because there’s only a small number of us.’

I have worked with several families who haven’t been able to choose their ‘10’ so they’ve said to me, ‘You know what, it’s just me, my sister and my daughter,’ which is what they may have secretly wanted it all along. The ceremony is often more honest, improvised and connected, which means a gentler space has emerged of allowing whatever comes without this pressure of ‘performance.’ We actually had a family turn up in their pyjamas to one funeral as their mum loved to be round the house in her nightwear! So new rituals are emerging and old worn out traditions are being ditched.

Sue: I guess this will create a huge shift within the funeral industry.

Angela: It certainly will. Go Simply Funerals specialises in really small funerals and I love them because they are so intensely personal. Interestingly, crematorium managers are saying exactly the same thing. One crematorium manager said that he normally doesn’t get involved with what’s going on and switches off during the services. But these days he is being more drawn in because of the honesty and intimacy. That has to be a good thing and I would love to see these aspects of the funeral stay.

Sue: Do you automatically wear personal protection equipment (PPE) when you are working as an undertaker or taking a funeral service?

Angela: I don’t personally when I am working as a funeral celebrant. Crematoriums provide quite large spaces so it’s easy to keep to social distancing. However, when all this started both Kevin and I were concerned. So, we were very careful. Kevin and I wear masks and gloves for all the practical things we have to do before a funeral and for collections [of bodies], although we take off the PPE during the service. But I was speaking to another funeral director a couple of days ago and he said that some of the vicars he is working with are wearing masks when they take funeral services. I find that a bit bizarre.

We are as careful as we can be and try not to be alienated from the family. For example, when we went to collect someone who died this morning, I took off my mask after I knocked on the door and then took a step back to keep the two metres distance so when they opened the door, they could see my face. I feel it’s really important to speak to the family without a mask and they can see me smiling at them. Of course, if the person has died of Covid, you have to wear full PPE, especially when going into a care home. We just don’t know what all the risks are at the moment.

Sue: Can you say more about what it’s like for you to go into a care home during Covid.

Angela: Some of the care homes round here have been really hit hard. Some of the worst hit have set up rigorous precautions so it’s quite intense. They are closed to the public and to the families. We are met at the door and our shoes are sprayed with disinfectant. We also have to wear a visor, put our hair in a kind of shower cap and put on long gloves with full PPE aprons.

Sue: Do care homes provide you with the PPE?

Angela: No. We provide our own. If you haven’t got it on, some of the care homes will make sure you put it on. This, of course, and quite rightly, is about protecting staff as much as yourself and the residents. But these care homes are pretty grim because they have been forced into complete lock down. Access can be like going into a prison. Yet the staff have to be there and are working in an environment which is really poorly supplied with PPE. They have Covid notices on residents’ doors of those affected, and you really get the sense that there is an emergency situation. So many Covid residents are infirm and they need physical help because they can’t walk or wash themselves or go to the toilet on their own, so they have to be supported. It is difficult to enforce physical distancing and these courageous care workers are not even paid the same as nurses – they just receive the minimum wage. I think they are amazing – they are going way above and beyond the call of duty, and so many are from Eastern Europe. I don’t know who will replace them when they all leave.

Sue: The plight of care homes is very much in the news these days. But not so long ago, old people died at home and pneumonia used to be regarded as ‘the old man’s friend.’ Yet, it seems to me the way we view death of an elderly person has massively changed. It’s as if death of anyone, no matter how old they are, is regarded as a terrible medical and social failure. I wonder what your thoughts are about this.

Angela: I absolutely agree. This may be a bit close the bone for some people but the average length of ‘stay’ in a care home is around two years. People put their old people into care homes because they can’t or don’t want to cope with them anymore. They certainly don’t put them in a care home for fun. I have spoken to many, many older people during my time as an undertaker and funeral celebrant, and I have never come across an elderly person who wants to go into a care home. They always say, ‘I would rather to go out of here [home] feet first than go into a care home.’

Sue: My father said the same. It was a huge fear for him. Thankfully he died before that was on the horizon.

Angela: Nobody wants to be a care home waiting to die. Because that’s the truth: no one ever comes out of a care home and no-one ever gets well. It’s not like going into hospital.

Sue: I am hoping that Covid is making us realise how we are treating our elderly and will open up serious discussions about how to improve their end of life care.

Angela: I do, too. Until now we haven’t spoken about care homes. They are not the same as hospices because hospices are usually built in beautiful locations and charitably funded. They also have lots of volunteers to support patients with classes in singing and art and such like. So, for me, hospices are the ‘glamorous’ end of dying, while care home dying takes place on the margins of society. I mean care home workers do their best, but nobody wants to pay for the care of the elderly. Everyone thinks it’s someone else’s problem. I’ve walked into some care home rooms which are as small as a bathroom – there’s a hospital bed with a plastic mattress, nylon sheets and a chest of drawers with a TV, and that’s it. This is where we are putting our old people.

And, No. It’s not lovely when you go into a care home when someone’s shrieking or there are lots of residents with dementia. But I get really angry when I hear things like, ‘John didn’t want to see his mum in the care home. He wanted to remember her like she was.’ This means we are literally beaching our old people on the rocks of life and forgetting about them in between our once a week visit. Other people can do the dirty work for us, which they do on minimum wage, and we feel everything’s okay because someone turns up on a Saturday afternoon for singing hour to lead ‘Roll out the barrel.’

Sue: And, in many cases, we seem to be prolonging life.

Angela: It’s strange but it’s usually the families who want to push this. For example, we had the case of a 91-year-old man, whose family said, ‘Yes he’s got a brain tumour, so he’s going into hospital to have an operation.’ My question is, ‘Why?’ Why don’t you just leave him? For heaven’s sake, he’s 91. He’s probably had enough.’ But the family won’t let him go because they are petrified of grief. This gentleman died two days after the operation anyway. In hospital, in pain and strapped to machines. What was the point?

Sue: There’s a lot of shame as well. I remember feeling huge guilt and shame when my mum went into a care home, which was a really lovely one. But she certainly didn’t want to be there. Again, I was so glad she died shortly afterwards – this was because my family agreed with medical staff not to extend her life with medication, which she didn’t want. But this was almost twenty years ago.

Angela: Yes, definitely there’s huge shame and guilt going on as well.

Sue: I think the way care home deaths are being spoken about by the Government and reported in the media is very poor. It’s so one dimensional, focusing on how awful and terrible death is – rather than opening up crucial conversations about what needs to happen in the way we can improve end of life care for the elderly. 

Angela: Yes, it’s all about creating headlines around ‘preventable deaths.’ But the truth is, these are not preventable deaths. Death is not preventable, only untimely. As you say, we are fixated on this belief that death is a failure – it’s a technical glitch that we can control, and when we can’t, we blame it on someone else. This is why the Liverpool Care Pathway was challenged. People would say, ‘They aren’t feeding my dad.’ The answer should have been, ‘Well, that’s because your dad is dying and dying people don’t want to eat.’ Instead, we just bought into this absurd war on death. We just don’t seem to be able to accept we are mortal. But as Joan Bakewell put it so beautifully when she was interviewed recently, ‘You have a very different perspective when you’re my age.’

Of course, you’re not ready to die at 25 or 60 or even 70 plus. But there comes a point when, as Joan Bakewell says, you do begin to feel ready. We need to start respecting this. We are talking about care home deaths as if old people should not be dying and we are ageist if we not willing ventilate them. But the truth is, old people die. If it wasn’t Covid, it would be something else. Quality of life is not about length of life.

Sue: I completely agree with you that quality of life does not equate to length of life. I think our denial of death has lot to do with our ignorance of the process of dying. I was listening to a radio programme when a listener called in to demand why residents aren’t being taken out of care homes and put onto hospital ventilators. To give the presenter her due, she did point out that ventilators were not a pleasant experience, often causing more damage, and certainly weren’t suitable for old people. The listener then owned up to the fact they had no idea what they were talking about. My bigger issue is how often the media and Government refer to ‘saving lives.’ We don’t save lives. We find ways to extend them. One government spokesperson said that saving elderly people’s lives could mean they could ‘enjoy’ at least another seven years. I don’t think enjoy is the right word here especially if you are infirm, isolated and in pain.

Angela: Yes, we’ve fallen into this myth that medicine and science should attempt to cure death and there’s no price to pay. But I also believe this is about our disconnection from nature. We do not have dominion over nature – nature is not a machine.

Sue: Yes, at no point have we ever been encouraged to understand what it means to yield to death. Instead the media is just perpetuating this unholy war against death. How would you like the media to change in the way it reports death?

Angela: For a start: talking about death as an inevitable experience and how to deal with the dying on a really practical level. There’s also a very different kind of decision to be made here about what we value as human beings, and what creates a good life. This social distancing ‘safety first’ code means many of us are isolated and alone, and only connecting through cyber space, if that’s possible. We are also intensifying our war on nature by sterilising everything in sight. I wonder what kind of long-term repercussion this will have on our immune systems. We need our microbs – they are a vital part of creating health and wellbeing – but they are being obliterated in a sea of bleach and anti-bacterial handwash.

Medical and political messages about Covid are also constantly changing. First it was about creating a collective herd immunity. Then it was, ‘No, we need to save all lives.’ I sense we will swing between these two positions as we try to make huge adjustments. But ultimately, we need to realise and accept that death is not the enemy.

Sue: How would you like to see our relationship with death transformed?

Angela: We need to reposition ourselves back into nature – to find our rightful place again. It’s about coming out of narcissism and separation into understanding that we are part of the natural world and subject to the laws of nature. Life goes on when we die! It’s about being okay with our death and understanding that we are, in fact, only a very small part of our ‘I’-personality, and allowing the words of Mary Elizabeth Frye to sink in: Do not stand at my grave and weep/I am not there; I do not sleep/ I am a thousand winds that blow…

There’s so much more to us than our limited thinking of who believe we are. We are not just our bodies or our personalities, and I believe we need to engage with the meaning of life beyond death, whatever that may look like. You would be amazed at how few people have this kind of conversation. When I ask a family about what the person believed would happen to them after they died, 99.99% say that they have no idea. They simply never talked about it. No wonder they are afraid to let them die.

Sue: If there was one gift to arrive from this pandemic for us as a society, what do you think this gift could be?

Angela: I would love to see grief being acceptable and regarded as a deep teaching, which is  part of our universal experience, immensely rich in gifts. I would also like to see us return to a much more conscious way of understanding our place in our communities and our connection to our larger society. Right now, we are being challenged by a sense of self-sacrifice similar to what happened to soldiers fighting during the two World Wars. There was a nobility in sacrifice for the larger whole – of being able to say, ‘Maybe I won’t live but somebody else will.’ And that being enough to give their life meaning. We are seeing this with so many people – especially front-line workers – doing wonderful things for their communities during this crisis.

And, I think we need to shine a light into the way that we deal with our older generations. To move away from care homes being warehouses of extending dying. This can’t go on. Medicalisation is not the way. We need to respect a person’s self-worth. Yes, we really need to have these conversations now.

Sue: What do you think will happen once this pandemic is over?

Angela: I think people are quite afraid to go back to the way we were living this overly busy, nuts life. A lot of people have dropped down into something else, where we are really thinking about what’s important to us. It’s been a time of real clearing for many of us and finding joy in the smallest of things. I know this has been a hard time for many people, especially those whose relatives have died, but suddenly we are being reminded of what’s really important. This is not about jumping on a plane to get to the next place in the world and taking a selfie. This is about profound love and connection, and finding what makes meaning for us – finding a way to be a part of things. And also reminding ourselves that we all have a place, and life will go on without us!

One thought on “Working as a Funeral Celebrant and Undertaker in the Time of Covid

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  1. Dear Sue and Angela, Thank you for this deeply thoughtful, reflective, informative and inspiring conversation which this interview is! I hope it will find a wider audience, it deserves it. A wonderful piece of work. Well done!
    There is plenty of food for thought here for all of us.
    You are encouraging the kind of conversations we should be having, about the lessons we learnt from lock down and the Covid19 crisis.

    It is high time that we talked publicly and privately about how we live and relate and what is important in life. What is our place in life on this planet? How do we relate to the environment and each other? What is really important in life? How do we treat the elderly and how do we want to be treated once we become old or frail and in need of care? Can we talk about our fears, concerns, hopes and beliefs around our own death to each other? These and so many more questions beckon us. We need to seize the opportunity whilst we still can. Death is not the enemy, blind ignorance is.
    There is so much we need to urgently learn and here is a golden opportunity, as you so aptly illustrate in your interview. Thank you!

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