Grieving digitally during COVID-19

Liz Bell

MASSIVE changes forced on the funeral industry amid coronavirus restrictions have reshaped the way people grieve and challenged funeral companies to find ways to make each service a personalised and sympathetic affair.

Hundreds of funerals are held in the Wellington Shire every year, with the average having 80 to 100 guests, and some larger ones attracting well over 1000 mourners.

In regional Victoria under stage three restrictions, only 10 guests can attend a funeral and social distancing of 1.5 metres distancing must be observed.

Theoretically, that means that unless guests are from the same household, there’s no hugging, no kissing, not gentle arm around the shoulder, and no shaking hands.

But the challenges go far beyond social distancing, with the trend toward audio-visual technology adding both complexity and flexibility.

Gippsland Funeral Services managing director Scott Rossetti said adapting to COVI D-19 restrictions had been a massive learning curve for service providers.

Most funeral guests are now more likely to see the service live streamed, webcast or replayed using audio-visual technology, and expectations of a quality broadcast have to be met.

Mr Rossetti said most funeral services were already using technology pre-COVID, but now had to invest in upgraded systems that were more reliable.

He said while it had been extremely difficult for families to adjust to the social distancing requirements, most had been understanding because of the changing world.

“Every culture needs to pause and gather to reflect and grieve the loss of a loved one by getting together at a funeral, but it’s a different world now,” he said.

“Grieving hasn’t changed, but the way we do it has to, for now.”

Mr Rossetti said limiting guest numbers to 10 was “problematic” for some, and had led to some families using creative methods to try to get around the rules.

“But the directions are pretty clear, there really can’t be people in the carpark or waiting outside the door, we all have to look at other ways to get everyone involved and allowing them to contribute.”

Although technology had opened up services to large groups and provided opportunities for individual input, it wasn’t without its challenges, and often presented another layer of problems.

“Technology is not foolproof, and occasionally things go wrong,” Mr Rossetti said.

As a funeral director, Mr Rossetti was also concerned technology was no replacement for the warmth and support of human touch, and said he looked forward to the time when restrictions ease.

“For me, being able to put a hand on the shoulder of a person grieving to offer them comfort and reassurance is important – that’s something that has been one of the biggest challenges for everyone,” he said.

Like others in the industry, he believes some of the changes may become permanent, as there are major cultural shifts in social connectedness.

“Because of the restrictions, we are seeing a few people deciding to choose a private ceremony at home rather than a service, and that may be something that becomes more common,” he said.

Brad Semmens of Semmens Funerals in Maffra said increased use of technology was another trend likely to be here to stay.

“I have no doubt that there will be more technology used at funeral services after this, because it offers that flexibility,” he said.

Before restrictions, only about 10 per cent of services were live streamed, but that had jumped to about 80 per cent.

“I think that will definitely continue, and I think it will be a very long time before we see a church gathering with 300 people sitting in pews,” he said.

For people finding it difficult to come to terms with the new way of grieving, support organisation BeyondBlue has put some information together to help mourners cope with their loss during the pandemic and social restriction.

Speaking for the organisation, former chairman of Palliative Care at La Trobe University, Professor Allan Kellehear, said while it may not be possible to say goodbye in person, people could still find a way to farewell a loved one in order to get through that first step in coping with grief.

“In your own time, find yourself a quiet place to be alone and say your goodbyes,” he said.

“Say what you wanted to say to them as if they were still there.

“The where and how don’t really matter, because the goodbye is a conversation you have in your heart.”

The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement has also put together some information regarding funeral support and physical distancing during the COVI D-19 pandemic, at