An autumnal tree canopy

A year of reflection

March 23, 2021

As we pass a year living with Covid-19, we wanted to take some time to remember those who have died, and those who have lost loved ones. Dealing with the death of a friend or family member is difficult at the best of times, but a year grieving without that physical support of a hug or a comforting hand on the shoulder takes a difficult time and makes it even harder. 

We know however, that people have still been supporting one another in all sorts of ways to show that they care – even where they can’t be there in person.

We asked our celebrants for their thoughts on conducting funerals during a pandemic, and one thing that came through was the kindness of others, even at the worst of times. One Celebrant told us that they had been incredibly moved to receive a note left for them by the young person they were creating a funeral ceremony for. A part of that note read;

Thank you for what I know you are going to do for my family when it comes. They will all be alright but I was just thinking, who looks after you?… You must always think of the people whose funerals you have done and it must affect you as well. Well I want you to know not to worry for me as I played a small part in this world and with my family, but their devotion and love to me showed me only the true version of love. I believe that even my ashes when scattered will provide nutrients to this earth, and next spring my family will be waiting with bated breath as I pop my head through again to this world as a snowdrop, my nanas favourite flower. Please know how grateful I am for the help you are giving to them all. I was always taught to be strong throughout my life and accept what it brings and to know that no matter how short my time here I did make a difference. Hold your family close and laugh with them, and know you have made a difference.

Of course it has been incredibly tough at times, especially witnessing the suffering of families and friends who are grieving, and being unable to provide the usual simple moments of comfort. One celebrant told us:

Instead of shaking hands or giving hugs at funerals I have been trying to use alternative ways to express my sympathy and affection. Especially whilst I and others are behind masks and our eyes are speaking for us. I often place a hand on my heart to make that connection.

But of course it is not just the celebrants that cannot provide the support they would like, as they told us:

Grieving is so much harder for people when you can’t be with folk who can comfort you, or even leave the house to find some distraction from it… Ceremonies have become an important focus although even then, not being able to join and grieve with people has also caused more distress.

I find it hard seeing mourners afterwards – making use of what little time they have to pass on condolences in the freezing cold car park because they are unable to return somewhere to share more memories and support those grieving. I hope that will change soon. Gathering afterwards is such an important part of helping a family get through such a difficult day…

COVID has denied so many the right to say goodbye, the right to be present, the right to hold their loved ones during such grief, the right to be together. That has been devastating.

What really stood out when speaking with the celebrants however, was how important it has been to them over the past year to be able to stand by families and friends through the toughest of times. In their words;

I am humbled to have helped and supported them.

I love my funeral work and whilst this past year has been really tough, it’s also been an honour.

I know how much it means to me, when I feel tired and overwhelmed, to know I’ve made a difference.

This role as a celebrant is just incredibly humbling and precious.

Advice on planning a ceremony with restrictions

Here is some advice from the celebrants for anyone planning a funeral during this time:

I have recently delivered an entirely webcast service, just me in the chapel with family watching from Japan and England. At this ceremony the son of the deceased recorded a short message which was played during the service. I’ve had this at a couple of other ceremonies too during the pandemic, loved ones recording messages which are played during the service because they cannot travel to be there in person. It’s a lovely personal touch and a nice way of involving absent loved ones.

Video calling has of course been invaluable and I have found that it doesn’t make a difference to the quality of information gathered. I have also been able to speak to family members who live overseas who I wouldn’t normally have met at a face to face meeting. There has also of course been a huge increase in webcast services. It brings families some comfort in knowing that there may only be limited numbers in the chapel but there will be others watching at home, taking time out to remember their loved one with them.

If appropriate I may say at the end that people may like to raise a glass to the person later in the day. One funeral where I did this was at the very start of the pandemic and was attended by only the deceased’s wife and his two teenage sons. Both me and the funeral director were wiping away the tears as it seemed so cruel and alien back then.  His wife contacted me afterwards to thank me and said that a number of people watching on the webcast had poured a dram, taken a photo of the glass and sent her a picture saying they had raised a glass as suggested to her husband. It gave her a lot of comfort and I felt so glad about that.

Even though there are smaller numbers, I never suggest that the ceremony should be shorter or have less content. I will of course write a shorter ceremony if requested – but we know that the funeral is the last thing they can do for their loved one, to do them proud and give them a good send off. That’s a harder thing to achieve when there are only a small number of people present and no gathering afterwards. So I think it’s more important than ever that the ceremony itself brings comfort, captures the person as well as possible and celebrates their life. I endeavour and hope that I am able to do that for every family.

Thank you to all our celebrant body, for sharing their thoughts, and for working so tirelessly this year to provide support for so many. Thank you too to everyone who put their trust in the hands of our celebrants, to help you honour your loved ones at this difficult time. 

Latest Related Stories

Graphic showing people putting slips in a voting box showing the Humanist Society Scotland logo, and LGBT+ flag, and a science symbol. Text reads "I'm voting humanist."

We launch our general election 2024 resources

We launch our general election 2024 resources
Ross holds a mic whilst talking to a crowd at rally (not pictured) outside. He wears a green kilt.

10 years of equal marriage in Scotland: interview with celebrant Ross Wright

10 years of equal marriage in Scotland: interview with celebrant Ross Wright
Fraser speaking to an interviewer behind the camera on STV News. He has short brown hair and glasses and wears a suit jacket without tie and blue and white checked shirt.

Humanists in the media on new data showing Scotland is majority non-religious

Humanists in the media on new data showing Scotland is majority non-religious
A landscape photo of people in a garden talking at tables with food on them. The photo is taken at a picnic and play event at the Hidden Gardens behind Tramway, Glasgow during World Humanist Day 2023. Text infront reads "World Humanist Day small grants scheme."

Our World Humanist Day small grant scheme opens for 2024

Our World Humanist Day small grant scheme opens for 2024