Funerals present one of the most urgent, difficult and often cruellest tensions that exist between the realities of human need and the demands that must be met if the current COVID-19 outbreak is to be brought under control. When a loved one dies, our natural human desire is to be surrounded by others in order to experience their comfort and support through presence, touch, prayer and a common acknowledge of grief and loss. It is also known that during the current outbreak of COVID-19, the very gatherings and contact desired by those who grieve are precisely what must be avoided, or at the very least restricted, if transmission of the virus is to be brought under control.
This tension may not be readily acknowledged by those suffering from the bewilderment, pain and agony of grief. The challenge for those leading funerals is with gentleness and compassion to enable those who mourn to find ways though the realities of the current situation that acknowledges both their needs as people who grieve and the needs of the whole community to bring COVID-19 under control. This poses a phenomenal challenge for those charged with taking funerals. Where possible, the expectations and needs of those who mourn should be satisfied, while at the same time holding in place the good practice needed to enable the safety of the whole community at this time.
The aim of this advice is to support clergy and others who take funerals. . Every parish and each church building is different and there can be no one size fits all solution. Churches will need to assess how, and in some cases whether, they are able to conduct funerals safely in their parishes in the light of the advice below. This advice follows government guidance which is constantly evolving. Therefore please be aware on reading what is set out below that it may be updated.
Things to think about before the service
How many people can attend?
Each church is different. Therefore subject to government advice and direction the number of people attending funerals in a church will depend on two factors:
• the space available so a safe distance of at least 2 metres (6ft or 3 steps) can be maintained between households at all times during the service, including entering and leaving the building.
• the number of people that a minister feels they can effectively ‘manage’ during a service.
Churches may need to set caps on numbers in order to ensure this and might consider taping off some pews or rows of chairs. Alongside the member of clergy, Funeral Director and staff, the government has stated that only the following should attend:
• members of the person’s household
• close family members
• or if the above are unable to attend, close friends
The size and circumstance of the church will determine the maximum number that can be accommodated whilst also facilitating physical distancing, but numbers should be minimised as far as possible.
What if no family or friends can attend?
Where family relatives or friends are unable to attend a funeral service, clergy can still take a funeral even if those present are limited to clergy and funeral directors.
Can we have the organist and/or verger attending?
In light of the government advice above, additional people are not encouraged to attend the service, such as an organist, verger, sound system operator etc.
What about those who may be personally self-isolating or have symptoms?
Sadly, anyone who is showing symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) (a new continuous cough, a high temperature or loss of taste and smell) should not attend the funeral due to the risk that they pose to others; remote participation should be considered, for example live streaming. Failing this, a recording could be made which can be sent to anyone unable to attend after the service. Where no audio link can be achieved, officiants may be able to provide an order of service, either by email or post.
How can I communicate with the bereaved to discuss the service etc?
Any interaction with the bereaved should be done safely; this may mean by telephone or video link. It is important not to share documents, books, photos etc.
What if I can’t offer the traditional funeral service?
Any changes to the normal service should be explained by the officiant to the family. Consider whether a memorial service could be held at some point in the future, which is an opportunity for more people to come together once Government guidance permits.
Managing the church
What about hygiene precautions?
Hand sanitizers should be signposted, readily available and easily accessible. Notices should be clearly placed advising people of correct hygiene practices. Consideration should be given as to the flow of groups in and out of the church to minimise any risk of compromising physical distancing, avoiding overlap between different groups while also leaving time for adequate cleaning. The premises should be well ventilated, preferably by opening windows and doors where possible.
What about cleaning the church?
Parishes should ensure that processes are in place to allow a suitable time to appropriately clean the area in which the service has taken place both before and after each service, paying attention to frequently touched objects and surfaces, using regular cleaning products. Guidance on cleaning churches is available on the national Church of England website.
What about mourners who are self-isolating due to a possible case of coronavirus (COVID-19) in their household?
Key mourners of the deceased person may include those who are self-isolating due to another member of the household being unwell with symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19). Where the funeral is scheduled before the period of household isolation has been completed (14 days from the first person in that household showing symptoms) mourners who are self-isolating should be facilitated to attend.
Mourners who are from a household that is self-isolating should:
• not attend if they have any symptoms of any kind, even if these are very mild
• maintain a distance of at least 2 metres between themselves and others
• advise the other mourners that they are otherwise self-isolating at home, and communicate that their presence means that others who are extremely clinically vulnerable should not attend
• practise careful hand and respiratory hygiene:
o washing their hands more often – with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds or by using a hand sanitizer.
o avoiding touching their eyes, nose, and mouth.
o covering their coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then throwing the tissue in a bin which should be clearly sign-posted and readily accessible.
• Mourners who are from a household that is self-isolating are advised to use their own transport where possible.
What about mourners who are extremely clinically vulnerable?
Mourners who are in an extremely clinically vulnerable group should be facilitated to attend, should they decide to do so.
People who are clinically extremely vulnerable should have received a letter telling them they are in this group or been told by their GP. Mourners who are in an extremely clinically vulnerable group have been advised that they should minimise their contact with others for their personal protection.
However, they may decide to attend a funeral despite the additional risk this poses to them and should be facilitated to do so.
They are not advised to attend a funeral if there are others attending who are self-isolating due to another member of the household being unwell with symptoms of coronavirus, as they could be incubating disease. Mourners who are extremely clinically vulnerable should follow the general social distancing advice for the clinically vulnerable mourners and should maintain a distance of 2 metres away from others as a minimum.
Actions to reduce their risk of infection could include:
• advising other attendees that there is an extremely clinically vulnerable person attending and reiterating the need to stay at home if they are unwell, and to be respectful of the vulnerable person’s need to avoid close contact at any point
• advising the mourner to travel to the venue via the safest route possible, preferably in a car by themselves, or with someone from their household
• considering the additional risk involved if attending the funeral requires travelling by public transport
• ensuring that mourners who are in a clinically vulnerable group do not attend the same ceremony as mourners who are in household isolation
During the Service
Can we have singing?
Hymns and singing are not advised as this may encourage droplet and aerosol spread. Recorded music should be encouraged as the next best option.
What should clergy do in terms of their own personal hygiene?
Clergy should remain mindful of their own personal hygiene, sanitising/washing their hands before and after the service and again after the committal.
Can we use church hymn books, bibles etc?
The use of communal Bibles or hymn books should be avoided. Orders of service could be placed on pews before the service and then taken away by mourners or safely disposed of.
Can we shake hands; can I touch the bereaved as a gesture of comfort?
While it is contrary to human instinct and normal pastoral practice, it is important to advise mourners that there should be no physical contact including shaking hands, hugging or kissing outside their own households.