Funerals adapt to Covid-19: ‘It’s eerie, that’s the only word I can use’

Social distancing rules impacting on how communities offer support to the grieving

Funeral directors Martin and Bill Fitzgerald at their funeral home in Macroom, Co Cork. “Funerals now are a very different experience to what they were even a month ago.” Photograph:  Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Funeral directors Martin and Bill Fitzgerald at their funeral home in Macroom, Co Cork. “Funerals now are a very different experience to what they were even a month ago.” Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

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Seven generations of the Fitzgerald family from Macroom in Co Cork have buried their neighbours. The family’s undertaking tradition dates back to before the Famine and has seen them bury those who fell to the Spanish Flu a century ago.

Martin Fitzgerald is now in charge of the business, having started out in the 1960s, and says he has “never seen anything like the impact Covid-19 is having” on his line of work.

Like everything else, the pandemic is changing how funerals and bereavements are handled, with social distancing guidelines an unusual thing to have to factor into such emotional occasions.

Rosaries and people publicly lying in repose at funeral homes have gone. Remains are only brought to the church on the day of interment and attendances are to be just family and close friends, standing safely apart.

“The last number of funerals we’ve conducted, we’ve hardly had more than 25 mourners in attendance. We did a funeral this week and of the 25 mourners in attendance, I would reckon only three were people outside the family circle,” Fitzgerald says.

“Shaking hands and hugging and embracing to sympathise are all gone by the board because of the danger of spreading the infection. Funerals now are a very different experience to what they were even a month ago.

“It’s eerie, that’s the only word I can use to describe it. It’s very sad seeing near empty churches and small huddles of people in cemeteries. It’s difficult on the family. You’d feel for them because it’s another burden.”

In many cases, families are not putting death notice in papers or on the RIP.ie website until after the funeral has taken place. If they do publish a death notice beforehand, they say the funeral is private as per HSE guidelines.

“Family tributes to their loved one at funeral are gone as is signing books of condolences. Even something as traditional as shouldering the coffin, which is an important part of the ritual, is gone because of social distancing.”

Grieving process

Fitzgerald said the graveyards in the Macroom area are modern, which means “we can drive the hearse well into the cemetery and then maybe use a trolley if necessary to bring the coffin to the graveside.”

The changes have been hard, even for the undertakers.

“We like social funerals...I think people like the public acknowledgement of loss that happens when there’s more than just the family,” Fitzgerald said.

“I think that sort of coming out of the community to rally around and offer support and sympathy helps people through the grieving process and that’s not happening now even though people are doing their best.

“We had one funeral this week and although people didn’t go to the church or to the graveyard in line with the advice, they just gathered in small clusters at fixed points on the road to the cemetery to pay their respects.”

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