We Do Death Differently Now - #COVID-19 and Rapid Social Change
Updated: Mar 26
My grandmother was born in 1911 - she would sometimes mention the family in the neighbourhood who lost 5 out of 6 children to the N1H1 pandemic in New York City. COVID-19 is a pandemic on the scale of N1H1, and we need to rapidly adapt our social mores, especially funerals.
Last Friday, the 20th March, The Guardian published a piece about Italy's COVID-19-related death toll seeing Bergamo's funeral home workload more than quadruple since the start of the novel coronavirus took hold in the northern region of Lombardy. The article also discusses the social effect that physical estrangement and the exigencies of social distancing are having on the friends and families of those who die. Because we cannot see or touch our dead when a contagious condition is present, and due to sheer numbers we cannot do funerals in traditional ways either. We do death differently right now because we are in the escalating grip of a pandemic respiratory infection the likes of which we have not witnessed for - literally - a century. COVID-19 is as bad as the N1H1 subtype flu strain that ravaged the world in 1918-19. An estimated 50 million people died from N1H1, and roughly 500 million (a third of the world's population) are estimated to have been infected.
COVID-19 sees entire communities, let alone family and friends, stuck in a limbo of raw grief due to the disconnect of social distancing and an inability to even have the clothing or effects someone went into the hospital with. Quarantine restrictions mean that when someone enters the hospital for COVID-19 treatment they cannot have visitors. Contagion protocols mean that we cannot view, wash, sit with, or prepare bodies for burial or cremation. We cannot attend burials or cremations because of infection concerns. Bodies cannot be dressed for funerals because of infection and contagion concerns. We cannot travel for end of life vigils, just as we currently cannot travel for funerals even if there were funerals to attend. In a sense, we are not 'doing' funerals anymore because everything is so radically and rapidly changed. Compounding the disconnect that out of control contagion engenders is the reality that we cannot even travel to the home of the person who died to care for the things they left behind right now - photographs, mementos, keepsakes, and personal heirlooms must also sit in stasis while we wait out the worst of this infection in self-isolation.
I understand how we think it impossible to consider - because we are used to doing things in a particular way - but funerals are different now. They need to be, because we need to take contagion seriously - and unfortunately we also do not have the time and space to permit a sharp increase in death numbers to have the 'usual' style of funeral right now. However, this abrupt end to one type of death/funeral ritual means that we have a huge social and cultural shift to accommodate. And we usually prefer to move slowly at the macro-levels of the social and cultural.
There are some things we can do for ourselves when someone we know dies at a distance, and I offer a brief guide in the hope that some of your mourning may be eased. I know that with the best will in the world I cannot make it 'better', but I do sincerely hope that some people may find some comfort or ease from the suggestions here.
* Stay in touch (if possible) with not only the sick person, but other people who are close to the person who has been diagnosed - video calls and phone calls can offer connection without compromising personal safety. If a person is at home and unwell you can call them if they feel up to it. This is a good time to keep things short and simple: "I love you" or "I am glad you are in my life" are not bad ways to say a lot without taking a long time to get to the point. When people are sick their energy levels are low, so be mindful of avoiding the small stuff. If someone does not feel up to talking, record a quick message and send it to their phone; you can also send it to the phone of someone who is with them if possible so the message can be played for them to listen to.
* Recognise that we cannot control quarantine and isolation restrictions. I am genuinely sorry that you cannot attend a traditional funeral - but I can support you in the idea of having a live-stream event from home, or a multi-person video meeting where several people can come together to celebrate the life of someone you love. Online you can share stories, cry together, and talk about favourite memories. Facetime, Skype, and Facebook messenger will all permit calls, or if you want a more stable platform for talking both Zoom or Jjitsi Meet are good options. Many businesses use Zoom, and Jitsi does not require a sign-up, so it is good for one-off meetings. Explore your options, and try out online memorial/funeral gatherings.
* Do your advance planning. All of it. Now. Take a tip from an end of life specialist - the time to do your own planning is always now. Write lists, email your solicitor, have the important quality of life conversations with yourself. If it feels weird talking to yourself about this, contact someone like myself who does advance planning support - try an online search. You will probably find someone near you to help, but do not use a funeral director for your planning. Funeral directors are wonderful when you are planning a funeral, but they are not trained or seasoned in general advance planning so they are not the people to approach at this time.
* Talk to someone about how you feel. If there is no-one close to you personally who is empathetic, then there are professionals you can reach out to. In Australia Beyond Blue is a good starting resource, with links to other support lines. Lifeline specialise in suicide support, but can also help link you to appropriate services, and their call lines are available 24 hours a day. I am available as a psychotherapist, but I am not the only one out there so do shop around. The person you talk to needs to be someone you like and trust, and they need to be skilled in the area/s that you want support with; don't be afraid to ask questions about their training and experience and whether or not they have package deals (it is always worthwhile asking).
* Plan something for later to commemorate your family member/s and friend/s. Funerals never needed to be immediate - as many Gentle Readers will know from previous posts - so planning a memorial service or wake for later in the year or on the first anniversary of the death is not a strange thing to do at all. Be sure to build in enough time for the current restrictions to be lifted. Take a tip from Australian musician Tim Minchin - his current tour has been interrupted by COVID-19 and some shows cancelled, so he has rescheduled these dates for January of next year. Don't be afraid to bring face-to-face and tech together when you plan. The ideal funeral might be some people physically together in a backyard, and some joining in via Facebook live or videocall. You can livestream, record later to put onto YouTube, or create a website for a memorial with moderated comments.
* Investigate your own options in terms of celebration and memorial projects. I work with clients myself on these, but there are wonderful options out there that will help you create something of your own. MyLifeCapsule is one example from here in Australia, where for a modest annual fee you can write letters, upload photos and videos, and be in control of your own legacy online. You may even find some interesting ideas to incorporate for a funeral you will organise or attend later, so make notes of websites and different approaches. You can create the ritual that is right for you - whether you are celebrating another person, or helping others to celebrate you by putting your plans and preferences down on the page.
Funerals are different with COVID-19, because life is now different. If you would like to talk about better-managing your stress or anxiety about the rapid change please email me at email@example.com for an appointment. I offer planning services, End of Life Doula services, psychotherapy services, and am a social scientist so I can offer rich context and social information as well. Often extra insight is helpful at times of rapid change. I am happy to talk, and clients from Australia as well as overseas are welcome.