Nobody wants to have to attend a funeral, but more than 20 years of leading them has taught me how vital they are to the grieving process.
In that moment of great loss and sadness, those who knew and loved the departed can come together, draw strength from one another and share memories and fond stories.
But in the past year this vital source of comfort has been tragically denied to families by senseless and baffling rules limiting funeral numbers to just 30 people – or even fewer depending on the size of the chapel or crematorium.
At the height of the pandemic last year, when cases were rife and our hospitals risked overflowing, I could understand the need to prevent people cramming together in confined spaces.
But now, with Covid infections plummeting to their lowest levels in months and with more than 33million Britons having had the first vaccination, the arbitrary cruelty of these rules is becoming all too apparent. Although a Christian myself, I work as a non-denominational minister in Portsmouth and have led about 900 funeral services for those of all religions and none.
A select number of family and friends including the son of the late Eric Stonestreet, Daniel, (at front right) and daughter Victoria (at front left) sit apart as the service begins at Ipswich Crematorium on May 5, 2020
And I can tell you that having mourners watch a service via Zoom is no substitute for physically being in the room together so that, at times, they can even feel the spirit of the deceased with them.
Yesterday I conducted the service of a 62-year-old man, a passionate motor-biker. A hundred of his fellow bikers turned up, the muffled roar of their engines accompanying the hearse. But only 20 were allowed inside this crematorium, denying all the others that crucial sense of closure.
And not long ago I led another service for a friend of mine, a triathlete, who had tragically died aged just 42, leaving a wife and two young children.
All his friends from the triathlon club cycled there, but again only 20 could come in. Normally, perhaps 200 would have attended the service.
But on this day, his other friends and loved ones were forced to wait outside in freezing weather in small, separate groups.
It creates such terrible stress for the families, forced to decide who must be excluded.
An elderly person may have several children, and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Denying some of them the chance to say goodbye is cruel and divisive at a time when being together is so vital.
And what makes this all so much worse is that the Government is now – quite rightly – opening up. The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, wants 1,000 fans to gather in Sheffield to watch the world snooker championship final on May 2.
Father Philip Leyshon (left) and Father Haydn England Simon wear PPE face visors as they stand beside the coffins of Gladys, Dean and Darren Lewis the evening before their funeral service at St Peter’s Church in Pentre, South Wales in November last year
Over two nights next week, 6,000 revellers will pack nightclubs in Liverpool. A further 4,000 music fans will attend the Brit Awards – unmasked and not socially distanced – in the O2 Arena next month.
Yet this arbitrary limit on funeral numbers will not be relaxed until May 17 at the earliest.
I feel rising anger and frustration as I witness the agony these absurd rules are causing the families who attend my services day after day.
And it’s not just the service itself. I like to visit bereaved families at home to help them plan the service. I get to know them, comfort them and establish a relationship.
But now, I am prevented from meeting them before the funeral.
Often the most important person there might be an elderly widow or widower who doesn’t use email – let alone Zoom – and may be hard of hearing. This makes it extremely difficult to do it by phone. After the service, I would shake the hands of the bereaved, chat to them and perhaps even hug them. But now, I must say goodbye and walk away.
It’s agony not being able to comfort someone who is desperately distressed, to see devastated friends and relatives unable to console each other with the necessary human touch.
And masks make it all so much worse: all you can see are the red-rimmed eyes of weeping mourners.
This cannot go on. That is why I am so grateful to the Daily Mail for highlighting the travesty of human dignity and the torment of families caused by the restrictions.
Funerals and burials can now be conducted safely and sensibly – and it is time they were.
So I beg the Prime Minister to act now and let families say their final goodbye without these cruel curbs.
Boris Johnson, if you could only stand where I stand, in front of grief-stricken families denied the comfort of togetherness, you wouldn’t hesitate.
- Paul Hickman works as a non-denominational minister in Portsmouth
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