March 25, 2020

Amanda started stockpiling a fortnight days ago. “My son thinks I’m panic-buying,” she said. “But it was just an extra six — I don’t have room for any more. I know someone who bought about 100 in his last order.” She feels a little embarrassed now, as the government has made assurances that supplies will not run out; but we shouldn’t blame her. There is no undertaker in the world who wants to tell a grieving family that they have run out of coffins.

We are not going to see a repeat of the Spanish Flu, where even the wood for the coffins ran out, and Italian-Americans buried their dead in the wooden boxes macaroni came in. Coffins are no longer made to order by tradesmen who split their time between undertaking and joinery, and the supply chains are robust.

But it is reasonable to ask whether their modern equivalents are ready for the predicted increase in deaths. There are concerns about shortages of masks and other protective equipment, both for the undertakers and the deceased — it is possible for a coronavirus victim to infect others, even in death, by expelling air when they are moved, and one coroner has advised crafting masks for them from towels or sanitary pads. It is hard to argue that living sufferers should not take priority over the dead; but that still leaves the undertakers vulnerable.

Funeral directors had been given no specific guidance from the government before a meeting with the Cabinet Office last week; even after that, it was unclear whether they would be classed as “key workers”, until the government was pushed by Carolyn Harris, a Labour MP who, having lost her son at a young age, is probably the most clear-headed person in Westminster on the provision of funerals.

When I started researching the death management process — to use the phrase favoured by the government’s pandemic planning documents — a few months ago, there were complaints about overcapacity. New private crematoria, for example, far from bringing down prices, reduced the number of cremations over which local authority facilities could spread their fixed costs, and in some parts of the country actually increased prices. The one advantage to this was that crematoria competed for market share not by price but with additional facilities — so the technology for live-streaming crematorium services is already widely available.

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In other areas, overcapacity kept prices down: one of the reasons that funerals in Ulster are cheaper than the rest of the UK — you will notice that adverts for funeral plans generally have a footnote saying “based on prices in Northern Ireland” — is that many towns have a Catholic undertaker and a Protestant undertaker competing for the nonsectarian trade. Overcapacity was not so good for funeral directors, who complained about having to lay staff off, or give them zero-hours contracts, in order to cope with demand that could never be predicted. All of them were, of course, on call 24 hours a day, whether or not there was any work to do — and there often wasn’t.

The funeral directors I have spoken to do not expect a repetition of the scenes in Italy, where coffins are lined up in churches ready for burial, not least because the vast majority of people in the UK choose to be cremated. Italy has one of the lowest cremation rates in Europe — only Latvia and Lithuania are lower — for historical and religious reasons; even Venice, where burying the dead has been forbidden since Bonaparte’s occupation, only legalised the scattering of ashes nine years ago, and even then at least 700 metres into the Lagoon.

It is true that the crematorium in Bergamo has been overwhelmed, with bodies being sent to Modena and Bologna in army vehicles; but Bergamo has only one crematorium, which can only accommodate 25 bodies a day. There are many more facilities in this country, most of which start their final cremation of the day at 3 o’clock or so, so that it’s done by close of business; if they operated non-stop 24 hours a day they could scale up very quickly.

At first the Coronavirus Bill seemed to suggest that local authorities could, in a worst-case scenario, order compulsory cremations, even for Jews and Muslims, whose religion mandates burial. Following a brief and amicable campaign led by the Labour MP Naz Shah, the government agreed that local authorities should have regard to — which is not quite the same as “must follow” — the deceased’s wishes, religion or beliefs.

The one possible pinch-point is the coroner’s mortuaries, and here the government’s planning is well-advanced, and surprisingly sensitive. Westminster Coroner’s Court doubled its capacity in a couple of days through a refrigerated tent on Horseferry Road; this was not the makeshift panic measure reported in a number of newspapers, but came from a commendable desire to avoid “stigma” to buildings which will one day return to other uses, and the “emotional impact” to later users. Only as an absolute last resort will local authorities commandeer refrigerated lorries to hold the dead until they can be disposed of respectfully.

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But the death management process is not just a question of logistics. Most of the time, the logistics is almost an afterthought. I spoke to a number of people in the industry a few months ago — undertakers, funeral celebrants, party planners and priests — and asked all of them: What is a funeral for? My very last interviewee — the spokeswoman for a funeral educational charity — said it was, first, to dispose of the body… And it suddenly occurred to me that not one person had said that before. Everyone else had spoken about the commemoration of the deceased, the comfort to the family and friends, the emotional work of “closure”; but really, the disposal of the body is the whole purpose of a funeral.

Or at least, one aspect of a single purpose. By getting the dead where they need to be, we mourners get where we need to be. For virtually the whole of human existence — it is almost a definition of being human — the two have been synonymous. But in recent years a distinction has been drawn between the disposal of the dead body and the commemoration of the life — the former is done in a private ceremony at the crematorium or a burial ground, the latter in what may be called a funeral but is in fact a memorial service.

Sometimes the final disposition of the body is not ritualised at all — many funeral directors offer direct cremation services, where they pick up a body and return the cremated remains, a sort of money laundering for dead bodies. This has previously been rare, an eccentric option for the self-consciously progressive — David Bowie, for example, who numbered among his favourite books, The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford’s polemic on the wastefulness of funerals — but that was true of cremation a century ago.

Last week, direct cremations (and burials) became the official policy of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors.  (That policy has since been relaxed, but only for small-scale funerals within the immediate family.) This is natural, while the pandemic lasts — funerals are places where people, many of them elderly, gather in close proximity and almost inevitably hug; at the time of writing, almost all the Covid-19 cases in the American state of Georgia can be traced back to just two funerals — but there is no certainty that we will return to the traditional way of death afterwards.

Of course, people with faith will feel its loss — last week the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, when he announced the suspension of synagogue services, was obviously distressed that he would not have a minyan to say kaddish for his father — but will the same be true for those for whom there is no theological imperative? Could it be that the lasting legacy of coronavirus is that we separate the disposal of the body from the commemoration of the life completely?

After all, it was the Spanish Flu that finally destroyed the elaborate rituals of Victorian mourning. In that pandemic, so many funeral processions left the mortuaries that it was described as “like a Lord Mayor’s Show”; corteges followed one after another to the cemeteries, often (like that of the poet Apollinaire, on its way to Père Lachaise) bumping into the crowds celebrating Armistice Day. Within 10 years, these horse-drawn parades of death had disappeared everywhere outside the East End of London.

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I hope not. I do not care for the modern funeral, a party “to which everyone is invited but the dead guy”, as the American poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch calls it. It is never clear whether he objects primarily as a poet or as an undertaker — or as a Christian, for whom our bodies are not our possessions, our bodies are who we are.  (I recognise that view is unpopular, and almost certainly problematic.)

And in the meantime, the better compromise to circumstances are live-streamed funerals. These are definitely a temporary option. I attended (watched?) my first live-streamed Eucharist on Sunday, and missed, of all things, the hymns; it seems natural to join in a prayer remotely, but singing hymns on your own in the house is just weird. (My parish is not as advanced — in any way — as Giles Fraser’s, which had services by video-conference; and anyway the high potential for comedy Giles mentioned means that video-conference funerals would probably not work.)

And I can’t imagine a funeral without communal singing: it was the most moving part of my father’s funeral.

One of the good things about the Victorian obsession with death is that many Victorian hymns — for all I know, most Victorian hymns — have a verse about death which is tactfully cut by the compilers of hymnals, and you only discover when you’re drawing up the order of service for a funeral. There’s a good one in the middle of Praise My Soul the King of Heaven; the one from Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer is an absolute banger. Being surrounded by my father’s old rugby club cronies, singing “Thou didst conquer, Thou didst conquer / Sin and Satan and the grave” (tenors only: “And the grave!”) was the moment when, I think, I began to feel closure.

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