Chances are, if you happen to see someone making a long trip across the country these days, they’re going to a funeral. As it stands, funerals and events related to a death remain one of the few occasions we’re allowed to travel long distances, stay overnight, or spend any time in close proximity with anyone outside of our households and support bubbles.
I know all this because last week I spent a very long time poring over every page of the rules and regulations of this latest lockdown to double check whether I would be allowed to attend the funeral of Neil, my beloved great-uncle and godfather.
In the weeks since he died, we’ve heard news of the new strain of Covid, watched case numbers rocket, and had the announcement of both Tier 4 and a new lockdown. To say everything’s been up in the air is an understatement, and I spent weeks going back and forth in mind, trying to decide whether it was a good idea to attend.
Some may see it as the height of Covidiocy to travel from London to Leeds for a funeral. “We’re all making sacrifices,” they might argue, and they might even be right. But in the end I decided I simply couldn’t live with the thought of not being there. I got tested, quarantined myself in my flat for days beforehand, then armed myself with my face mask, copious bottles of hand sanitiser, and a print-out of the lockdown regulations (yes, really) to show to anyone who dared challenge me, and set off.
In the past year, more of us than usual will have lost someone. According to ONS data published in mid-December there’ve been 71,000 excess deaths in 2020 compared to the five year average. And not only has the pandemic increased the number of deaths, it’s also made coping with them harder.
“What we’ve found from speaking to people on our helpline,” says Andy Langford, clinical director of Cruse Bereavement Care, “is that it’s really important for people to be able to come together and be with others who share that commonality of being close to the person who died. That closeness is important to help us grieve.
“People matter and what happens in people’s lives matters. The way we understand those facts come from the stories we tell each other about the person. Memories, times you spent together, and funerals are a way of bringing those together.”
The natural response to grief is to seek comfort, to reach out to family and friends and tell stories about the ones we’ve lost, to find some closeness through mutual loss. That’s hard to do in lockdown. It’s hard to find that proximity when you’re locked down with no notion of when it might be possible to find or provide a shoulder to cry on. It’s hard to tell those stories that make you feel close to the person who has died over Zoom with a wonky internet connection. It can even be hard to find time alone with your thoughts when you live with others and are being encouraged not to leave the house.
And it was for those reasons I felt I had to go to the funeral.
It had snowed overnight but the sun was high in the sky. In spite of the cold, mourners ended up lining the street outside Neil’s home to watch the hearse pass. There were no funeral cars in a procession behind it; we couldn’t risk households mixing in them.
The rules state that a maximum of 30 can attend a funeral; 18 inside the place of worship or crematorium and 12 can wait outside. Those inside must remain socially distanced which, in our case, gave the crematorium the distinct look of a church hall set up for a game of musical chairs with furniture strewn across the room haphazardly to maintain the required distance, with crosses marked in yellow and black tape on the floor in front of them. A sign at the door reminded us to keep masks on throughout the service.
In the corner of the room an iPhone attached to a tripod live-streamed proceedings for those outside or otherwise unable to attend.
Singing or the playing of brass or woodwind musical instruments is banned at funerals at the moment, so no hymns or otherwise were performed. Thankfully for us, Neil had specified that he was uninterested in anything of the sort so prerecorded Frank Sinatra and Elkie Brooks songs played at key moments. Similarly, pallbearers were banned so it was a team of professionals who carried the coffin from the hearse.
One of the more interesting elements was that my mum and dad, who organised the funeral, were told in no uncertain terms that our time was limited. “Keep it to a tight 25 minutes, or we’ll stop you,” said staff (and to be fair, we did see another group of mourners entering the moment we left.) My parents had spent the morning timing their eulogies as if they were runners preparing for the Olympics, repeating them over and over to shave off a second or two.
And yet, for all its weirdness, the funeral was exactly what we all needed. A cathartic outpouring of the grief we’d all been sitting on in our solitude for weeks. “Believe me, if there was any way they could, people would be filling this room to say their farewells,” Neil’s best friend said in his tribute. I could well believe it. As we trooped out into the snow, the air was filled with stories. About Neil’s passions, his status as a titan of local industry, his jokes, his adventures, the family he’d built by blood and by choice.
In the midst of the pandemic and in loss, at a point which should have felt the bleakest, connection with others burned bright.