Funerals have been halted indefinitely amid the covid-19 lockdown. PHOTO/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

ARTHUR HAWKES
arthur.hawkes@age.co.nz

It’s the hardest thing many of us will ever do.

To gather with our friends and family, and say goodbye to someone we’ve cherished dearly, for the last time. The ritual nature of funerals is a means for many of us to reckon with our grief; a point at which to begin the long adjustment to loss, and to the altered person we’ve now become.

In the days that precede, we tend to float around in a kind of daze, answering calls, sending emails, trying to remember to eat.

We receive 100 hugs, and drink a hundred cups of tea, and do normal things, like washing the dishes, which all take on an air of total strangeness.

Then, one morning we navigate to the agreed place of ceremony, sometimes by car, sometimes on foot, meeting all the people we love somewhere along the way.

And through the stories, songs, laughter, music, and tears of our assorted tribe, we construct a rich image of our departed who occupies this space for the duration.

Then, finally, we say a proud goodbye, as we leave this space of collective remembrance.

It is this moment that Kiwis have been deprived of.

It is cruel, but without malice. There is no one we can blame.

It is just a fact of this pandemic that we cannot gather, and there is no gathering that means as much to people as a funeral.

Robert Milne manages Wairarapa Funeral Services, which has had to adapt to an isolated world, where funerals have been halted indefinitely.

“I think people are really struggling, and I don’t think people realise that the New Zealand’s death culture has just been affected so drastically.”

Many funerals have had to be cancelled across Wairarapa.

One Requiem Mass, scheduled locally, has had to be called off under the new Alert Level Four guidelines, leaving friends, family members, and a wider congregation so sadly deprived.

Funerals are also not the only thing to have changed.

Milne describes the new process surrounding the deceased.

“When we take somebody from the house, instead of having family help us to move the person from the bed to the stretcher, we’re having to do that ourselves, and we’re having to wear masks and gloves.

“We have to ask families to not be in the room, not even in the house; we can’t engage with people face-to-face.

“That’s for our bubble, but also to protect the families.”

For those who die away from home, some may not even have the comfort of family on their deathbed.

“When somebody dies, the only chance the family has to say goodbye is at the place of death.

“At the house they can – but a lot of the rest homes are under lockdown so they can’t visit, the same with hospitals.”

For those who can’t have a service, many people are opting to have a quick burial or cremation, deferring a memorial service with the ashes or headstone, until after the lockdown has been lifted.

In the meantime, the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand recommends online tribute pages, where families can still get support, and a little bit of connection with people.

Milne contacted the Times-Age because he wanted to share a message of how important community is in this desolate time for grievers.

“It’s very isolating for people because instead of having the community remember the person that’s died, and giving that community the chance to share their grief with family and tell stories, that’s all been taken away.

“So, if anybody in the community hears about a death, they should pick up the phone, do something.

“Let them know that they know about the loss, and that they’re sad about the loss, and that they’re sad that they can’t share in any more meaningful way.

“It’s a message that’s nice to share.

“If we can have the community engage with the families that have lost somebody, even if its via phone call, at least it’s taking away a little bit of that isolation.

“Because they’re hurting. Everybody’s hurting … It’s overwhelming.”