The Revd Rachel Sturt, Anna Chaplain to Older People in Alton, Hampshire – where the movement began – has written an account of an unusual funeral she took recently. It may be a blueprint for others in these times calling for ingenuity in the face of restrictions.
A garden funeral – during coronavirus
The coronavirus outbreak of 2020 has brought many changes to Christian ministry, including the officiation at funerals. I regularly took a service at Marlfield nursing home. When the virus struck, there were several deaths in quick succession. It was heart-breaking for the relatives who could not visit their loved ones due to the risk of infection (particularly if they were protecting themselves by staying at home).
One such family was Hilary and Edward Croucher. They both attended the nursing home's monthly service. Edward had been a resident for some time and his wife, Hilary, came to keep him company. They had both belonged to their local church and appreciated being able to ‘come to church’ together.
The Crouchers had no children, but when Edward died, their niece, Cherry, suggested it might be a splendid idea to hold the funeral in the garden of their home. This meant that Hilary could be present, sitting in the doorway, and the friends and neighbours could sit at a two-metre distance apart or watch the proceedings over the garden fence or from the road.
So, on a warm May afternoon, under a cloudless sky, with the birds singing, a small crowd gathered. The hearse drew up outside the front gate (the road is a cul-de-sac). Cherry had thought of everything, including a loudspeaker for the music from her bluetooth device, a large picture of Edward and all the people he loved. The Crouchers had lived in the same house for 60 years, as had many of the neighbours, and as the hearse drew up, someone remarked: ‘He’s come home.’
I used the normal words of the Anglican funeral, except that I was unable to bury the body or draw the curtains, as at a crematorium. As I was not allowed to touch the coffin during the committal, I held up the picture of Edward and asked everyone to stand. When we said the final goodbye with everyone standing, I stood in the road. Edward’s body was then taken to the crematorium. The funeral directors played their part with great dignity, and I was delighted that they had adapted to a more unusual set of circumstances.
I feel that it meant more to the ‘congregation’, almost all of whom were elderly, than to sit, spaced apart in a crematorium chapel. It helped that the road had no traffic, the day was warm and sunny, and I already knew Edward quite well.
One of the mourners was a middle-aged woman who had just lost her father (also a Marlfield resident), and he had been cremated with no funeral. Afterwards she remarked, ‘You did this for me as well, you know.’ It made me realise how important it is to have a proper funeral (even an unorthodox one), as I am sure that lack of ceremony and denial of death is detrimental to mental health.
This mode of funeral could be done in less tragic circumstances, or when lockdown ends, in a care home or even a domestic house, if there is space. It meant less disruption for elderly, frail people and more freedom to improvise.