Luke Miller explores the practicalities of caring for the bereaved in a time of lockdown
Towards the beginning of lockdown I was interviewed on a webinar for a youth group. I was talking about the work I have been doing as the Faith & Belief Sector Lead for London’s Strategic Coordination Group (SCG) managing the response to Covid-19 in the capital. At the end they asked me how they could pray for me. I asked them to pray not for me but for us: for a group of people, most of whom I have never met in the flesh, but with whom I have been in meetings twice a day for nearly three months now. I found myself being suddenly very earnest. No one is going to clap these people or notice them, even less than the delivery drivers and the shop workers. These are the people who have been working flat out to make sure that the voluntary sector can still work, and that council services are still delivered; that there is enough mortuary space and that despite panic buying there is food in the shops and fuel enough for the businesses that are still open.
It is not just that we are consulted and asked to cascade information as outsiders. Given the experience of faith, often church, response to most of London’s major incidents in recent years the sector is at the heart of the operation. Where once they would say ‘why is there a vicar in the room?’ now they say, “if we are truly to serve London’s communities we cannot do this without you.’
We have been asked to be involved in a wide range of things and a number of us are directly involved. For me, it has been mainly about death, care of the deceased, funerals and bereavement. Others have been helping to support the plethora of London’s faith-based community services where possible to keep working safely. Others again have been making sure that good clear and up to date information is shared into the networks.
There have been tangible results. In the Funeral Standards for London we said one should journey alone, and with the full support of the SCG we won agreement for London to say ‘here is a minimum.’ We will not have ‘direct funerals’ with no celebrant, no word of prayer or commemoration, no one present. The hope is that outside London the standards will be widely adopted. Less publicly but significantly we have worked the mortuaries to ensure there is chaplaincy for the staff.
Government is concerned about bereavement. This generation will have seen death and at home. For the first time in 50 years it will not be possible to say that death is simply an avoidable accident which happens to other people and is always someone else’s fault. It has never been more important that funeral celebrants offer care after the funeral, and we have written to Funeral Directors and encouraged faith communities to do all that is possible to ensure that. Alongside this there has been a lot of work to help with the specific concerns of individual faith and belief groups. (Alongside multi faith engagement I work with humanists who characterise their outlook on life as belief rather than faith and with whom there has been much overlap of concern.)
It moves fast. A week seems like a very long time in this world of constant reporting, meetings two or three times a day, and time limits for actions measured in hours. In the past few days we have begun to look forward. None of us have any idea of when central government will make a decision about any easing of the restrictions but planning is going in, and by the time this is in print we may be in a new phase.
I have been arguing that places of worship and ceremony must be amongst the first public buildings to re open. As soon as it is safe for private prayer and when possible for socially distanced worship. A faith building is not a place of discretionary entertainment like a theatre or a cinema. It is central to the identity and self-understanding of worshippers and must be understood as crucial to well being. There are real concerns about the mental health of our nation and how we recover from bereavement. Providing opportunities for the lighting of candles, the saying of prayers and mutual reflection will be crucial for all, and our faith buildings, churches prime among them, must be open for this too. And of course the faithful need the sacraments.
Churches have convening power to gather bereaved communities for reflection and also to help with the anger that will come. Anger at the randomness of death; but also at the brutally restated clarity of what we knew before it all began, that the poor and the marginalised will have been disproportionately affected and at the same time find it harder to recover.
When the official organization is wrapped up the people in it will head home to archive their notes ready for the inevitable enquiry. I’d better have mine ready too for I and my colleagues were part of it. More importantly, for the Church there will be the age-old challenge. How to offer again to those to whom the world offers a grim face the beauty of God’s love.
The Venerable Luke Miller is the Archdeacon of London