The biggest impact for many of the coronavirus crisis has been the sad loss of a loved one. Each day the overall figure of those who have died from the virus across the country rises, but behind each number is a life; a person, their family, their friends, and now their grief at their loss.
To compound the difficulties for many, our ability to mourn and grieve as normal has also been affected. That’s why last month I convened a letter with cross-party support, raising with the Health Secretary the need for greater support and counselling facilities for families of those who have lost loved ones to this devastating virus. And that support is still desperately required.
Covid-19 deaths often occur in isolation, without loved ones being able to provide comfort in those final hours. Funeral services aren’t being performed as normal — an increase in demand has increased delays, and those that are taking place are affected by social distancing rules in which attendees cannot even hug family and console friends. Worst of all, in some areas mourners are banned from funeral services altogether, preventing even close family from saying a final goodbye.
The inability to grieve properly is exacerbating fresh sorrow. The immediate effects are clear, but there’s also no knowing what impact this will have on people further down the line as the crisis eases.
That’s why steps need to be taken by the Government now to address this issue and set out a roadmap to dignity in bereavement, to ensure that despite the current circumstances, people are able to process loss now and in the future.
In the short term, this means action to ensure affordability of funeral services of those who require them. Funeral providers are at the forefront of our national effort against the COVID-19 outbreak and they have rightly taken steps to reduce funeral costs, but many people are still unable to afford them.
Given the combination of falling incomes, reduced savings, and the sad fact that many of the funerals currently required are unexpected and unplanned, it’s no surprise people simply cannot afford the expense which can reach several thousands of pounds.
It’s important the Government makes sure nobody in the midst of grief is forced into debt or financial instability to afford a service.
For those who are able to hold a service, the guidance around current funeral arrangements for attendees is unclear and differs across the country. In some local authorities, funeral services are required to be attended by no more than 10 people, whereas others have banned mourners altogether.
The Government should ensure that funerals taking place here and now are consistent in their consideration of those grieving a loss, and provide dignity in death for those lost.
In the medium term, as lockdown requirements begin to be eased and larger gatherings are permitted again, those who were unable to attend funerals should be given the opportunity to mourn too.
That might take the form of a memorial service, or a ceremony reminiscent of a ‘celebration of life’, where crucially there would be no restrictions on attendees.
As well as providing an opportunity for those previously unable to attend services to say goodbye, this would allow all to mourn in a more conventional environment, surrounded by friends and family, able to console and comfort each other, and crucially grieve in a healthy way.
Here again the Government should look at options, and work to ensure all of those wishing to mourn can do so.
Finally, in the longer term, the impact of this crisis on the funeral and bereavement sector itself cannot be ignored.
The efforts taken by funeral providers to reduce costs and the huge increase in reliance on simple services has meant the funeral care sector like others has suffered severely from this crisis. Many are only just getting by, and a significant number of independent and smaller providers could go out of business. Whilst the possibility of a second wave of the virus remains, we cannot risk losing the capacity of funeral providers to support the nation if they are needed.
Without intervention, a crisis now will simply be pushed further into the future. Even as the crisis recedes, funeral services may be unavailable and unaffordable.
The Government should step in and offer support, to ensure today’s pressures aren’t tomorrow’s crisis in the funeral sector.
As talk begins of a ‘return to normal’, it’s important that we recognise that for those who have lost loved ones, there is no going back. The Government needs to provide a way forward for those left behind – and to do this, a roadmap to dignity in bereavement is essential.