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COVID’s impact on funerals, memorials and bereavement

Published:16 September 2021

Dr Lauren Miller-Lewis

Dr Lauren Miller-Lewis.

Funerals are a ritual that mark the ultimate rite of passage. They bring people together to mourn, to remember, to celebrate a person’s life, and to start the healing process, but what happens when this ritual is not allowed to take place?

A study undertaken by CQUniversity Positive Psychology Lecturer Dr Lauren Miller-Lewis and researchers Deb Rawlings and Professor Jennifer Tieman from the Research Centre for Palliative Care, Death and Dying at Flinders University, investigated Australians’ reflections on funerals and memorials during COVID-19 to assess how people can be better supported into the future.

“Everyone has had to be responsive to changes made because of COVID-19, and that includes the way in which we farewell our dead and the way in which we grieve,” Dr Miller-Lewis said.

“We wanted to understand how today’s society engages with death and hosted a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on death and dying (Dying2Learn) during 2020.

“This offered an innovative opportunity to understand the changes, adaptations, and impacts of COVID-19 on funeral experiences in an Australian community sample.”

While there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way in which funerals can be conducted, the study identified nine key themes with both positive and negative responses to the changes in funerals mentioned by participants.

According to Dr Miller-Lewis, participants’ funeral experiences varied depending on location and the extent of COVID-related restrictions and lockdowns altered their funeral experiences.

“For some, in-person attendance had been allowed but in smaller groups, some people were unable to attend at all (e.g., due to border closures), some funerals were postponed, and for others, new mourning rituals were created.

“Participants mostly reflected on the challenges, with 63% reporting negative emotional reactions. The limited number of in-person attendees was the largest negative impact reported,” she explained.

“Others struggled with being unable to comfort the bereaved due to physical distancing requirements and feeling unable to say a proper goodbye. Virtual funerals were also seen by some as lacking emotional connection or feeling voyeuristic.”

On the other hand, some participants appreciated the opportunity to attend the funeral virtually when they would have missed out otherwise because of number restrictions or travel barriers or distance.

“The increased intimacy of a smaller funeral meant for some families were able to focus on each other and their grief, rather than needing to 'look after' all the other mourners,” Dr Miller-Lewis explained.

“There were also many instances where new innovative mourning rituals were created to accommodate changes needed due to COVID-restrictions. These adaptive strategies included speaking the name of each person unable to attend a funeral in person, and mourners lining the street as a ‘guard of honour’ for the hearse.”

Looking to the future, Dr Miller-Lewis said she hopes further research into the long-term effect of changes to funerals and grieving will help to better support those experiencing bereavement.

“Whilst some resilient adaptations were evident, these required changes funerals could have important implications for the grieving process such as long-term bereavement challenges, but this is yet to be fully investigated.”