My Dad’s funeral was last week. It consisted of me, my four siblings and a vicar, all stood 2 metres apart in Gloucester Crematorium. The vast majority of people watched on through a live stream as the hymns and the eulogy echoed around the near empty room. The rows of empty silent pews speaking volumes about all the people who knew and loved Dad over the years who couldn’t be there.
After the funeral I have spent some time trying to answer people’s unimaginative question, “how was the funeral”? And I think this is the nearest I have come to an answer so far.
Crucially, both for coronavirus, but also for understanding what happened, there was no physical contact at the funeral at all. The vicar welcomed us with a polite nod of the head and my siblings and I all gave half smiles and weak waves back.
At the end of the service there were no hugs, no shared tears, and no sharing of marginally inappropriate anecdotes at the boozy wake. There wasn’t even the usual socially awkward British handshake (or my personal favourite, when one persona goes in for a handshake and the other a hug) from friends from Dad’s distant past. Instead there were just awkward good-byes and splodges of hand sanitizer as the next cask was wheeled in for the next small group of mourners. As we all disappeared off to our own separate lives even the warmth of sun felt inappropriate. It was a beautiful warm day and I knew the next time I would speak to my siblings it would be through a Zoom call or a shared meme on WhatsApp.
To me it felt inadequate, a poor fraction of a funeral for a man that burst at the seams of life. I wanted a festival for him, I wanted to hear first-hand about how he used to rally cars, how he spent hours preserving ancient machinery, how at one point or another he would have poured everyone there a glass of desert wine and watched expectantly for their reaction as they took the first sip.
Instead, the inadequacy compounded a hurtful sense of the inadequacy in not being able to be there to support my Dad in his final weeks of life. Instead of holding his hand in those final weeks I counted down the hours and days left of his life just 20 miles from the hospital where he rested. I still feel disproportionately grateful to the palliative care doctor who told me she sat and held his hand while she spoke to him about steam trains.
Although I answer honestly when I tell everyone “I’m fine” it is, I think, important to acknowledge that with death comes a form of psychological pain. And ritual and contact normally plays an important role is helping us all deal with that pain.
While people deal with this pain in their own personal and socially specific ways, I read that everyone uses the same regions of the brain to process this pain. To one degree or another it’s a shared experience. When we come together to mourn a death remarkably similar thought processes are occurring in all of our brains.
Crucially though, these processes are the same parts of the brain that are used to process physical pain. To deal with this, most of the world has developed a form of ritual that helps release endorphins to dampen this pain – in our society this is around the social gathering and shared embraces at a funeral.
We know that endorphins dampen, incredibly effectively, our psychological pain. That is why at funerals hugs are shared so freely when in general in British society we normally avoid that close embrace of a hug. It’s thought that these endorphins produce an opiate-like analgesic effect but just much stronger (one study suggests 18-33 times the effectiveness). We have evolved this behaviour as social creatures over millions of years. As a behaviour pattern it really isn’t dissimilar to the grooming of primates. Cuddling, with its stroking, patting and even the occasional leafing through the hair (that’s a joke) is the human form of primate grooming, and is designed to create and maintain our relationships and to soften pain. Anyone parent will know the impulsive response to hug their child equally when they fall over as when they are upset about something.
In an increasingly isolated world that has become more and more physically distanced (I had a cousin watch dad’s funeral from New Zealand), these rituals of gatherings around births, deaths and weddings are more important than ever. Sometimes a decade could pass and these are the only occasions when my extended family will have got together. These are our backstop to maintaining the loving relationships that sit as the foundation blocks to personal, family and social well-being.
That’s why I feel a funeral could and should be a time to gather and share stories of love and shared history but perhaps more importantly to be there, physically, for each other. Instead it feels like the coronavirus not only stole the last part of my Dad’s life, and indeed also the small but important role that we his children could play – to be there physically for him, but it also stole so much of the ritual that we all rely on to help us through the mourning process. In these socially distancing times, it feels like we are being asked to go against the most primeval of instincts embedded within all of us. To gather, to give and receive a hug and to share our memories.
One of the most comforting thoughts now is the promise of a gathering when “all this is over”. I know that this is unlikely to happen any time soon but the prospect of it is something to hold onto. To really say good-bye to my Dad I want warm ales on a hot day and long anecdotes about narrow-gauge railways all shared by the unusually diverse group of friends that my Dad managed to hold onto. But most of all I want a moment when everyone is deep in conversation and the booze is flowing that I can turn to someone who knew him and loved him as much as I did and hug them, and to mutter softly how much he would have loved us all being there together.
Until then I am making do with photo-albums and the incredibly lucky sensation of constantly having two children climbing over me and to be sharing this all with the most loving wife.
I know in this sense I am lucky and my heart breaks for all those in comparable situations going back to empty houses. If you are still reading this I urge you to take the time to reach out to those people living alone – I’m really OK and they might well not be. This unprecedented time isn’t just changing the basics of the modern society that we have grown so use to, but also the slowly evolved rituals that we rely on more heavily than most of us realise. There is little that can replace the importance of a hug but just letting people know you’re there for them is also important.