20 ways to mark a loved one’s death when you can’t attend a funeral

20 ways to mark a loved one's death when you can’t attend a funeral ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony

In these strange times of social distancing, lockdowns and self-isolating due to the coronavirus, the death of a loved one is even harder than ever when you can’t attend their funeral.

Many crematoria have closed their chapels completely, with those that remain open (and private funeral directors’ chapels) having tight restrictions on the number of people allowed into funeral services, often with chairs spaced widely apart.

Funerals are opportunities to celebrate and honour someone’s life, to acknowledge the pain of their loss, to say goodbye and for their loved ones to join together in mutual support whilst doing so.

This joining together is the part that many people find the most helpful about a funeral. Along with weddings, they are the occasions that are most likely to unite friends and family all in one place at one time for a shared cause. They are not only a way to mourn but also an important part of our shared culture.

Funerals are often very ‘touchy-feely’ occasions, involving a lot of hugs, hand holding, or just reassuring arms round shoulders. When there are only a limited number of mourners present, and they come from separate households (and therefore cannot be near each other), this physical connection is very much missed. People are near, but yet so far.

Lots of families are planning to hold a memorial or celebration of life party later in the year when the restrictions are over. This is a great idea but often we humans have a real need to acknowledge, mark and ritualise a death soon after it happens. Some have described the idea of waiting until the autumn with nothing in the meantime as feeling like they are emotionally holding their breath.

So, if you find yourself unable to have a funeral for your loved one, unable to go to one because you are self-isolating, or your loved one isn’t a close family member and you cannot, therefore, attend, here is a non-exhaustive list of ideas which will hopefully inspire you to mark their passing in a personal and meaningful way:

Together, online

Many crematoria and private funeral directors’ chapels have the facilities to webcast the ceremonies they hold. At the moment of writing (9th April), the music service Wesley, which serves many of the UK’s crematoria, is unable to offer live webcasts. However, they can record the ceremony and send it to you afterwards. This is a way to share an in-person ceremony (albeit with restricted numbers) with other people. If a recording is shared with people who can’t be there, perhaps you could set up a ‘watch party’ so that people are watching it all together and it is a shared experience.

Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony conducting a funeral ceremony via Zoom when you can't attend a funeral

If you are unable to be present at your loved one’s funeral, another option is to hold the ceremony over Zoom. This could be conducted by a celebrant who is in the chapel with your loved one (like I am in this picture), with all the guests logging in, or it could be completely virtual, with the celebrant also not present in the chapel. You will need to consider the reliability of your broadband connection before deciding on this option of course.

Zoom funerals are more interactive than webcasts, as it is possible for people to read tributes or poems, for example, as well as having music and slideshows if desired. You can have up to 100 guests logging in and you can see everyone else in attendance (although you can switch off your camera if you’d rather cry privately). There’s even the opportunity for a ‘virtual wake’ afterwards for you to catch up with everyone there. It can also be recorded to watch later if you’d like.

Of course, just like with ‘real-life’ funerals, you don’t have to have a celebrant at all, but if you decide to go it alone, do plan very carefully – anyone who’s ever been on a badly managed conference call will be able to tell you how awful it can get, and you really don’t want that in this instance!

If you do decide to hold a Zoom event, you might want to ask people to prepare things in advance. For example, you could ask people to share a favourite memory (it might be worth setting a rough time limit if there are a lot of you), a word that they think describes your loved-one best, a piece of music to play, a song to sing, a poem to read etc… You could also ask them to have a glass of whatever the appropriate tipple might be, in order to do a virtual toast at the end.

Together, offline

If the online options don’t appeal or aren’t possible, there are a number of things that you could consider doing instead. Many of these ideas will work ‘solo’ too. However, there’s a real value in the idea of coming together at a certain time, even if we are physically apart. The Thursday night ‘clap for carers’ is a great example of this. So perhaps you could arrange with friends and family a fitting action that you will all do at a mutually agreed time, in order to be together, apart. How about one of these (or a combination of several)?

Light a candle when you can't attend a funeral ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
  • Light a candle and spend 10 minutes thinking of your favourite memories of your loved one.
  • Play a piece of music that they loved – maybe singing along?
  • All raise a glass of their favourite drink to them, perhaps saying wording that others are using too.
  • Pray or meditate.
  • Cook and eat their favourite meal (or bake a cake to their favourite recipe).
  • If you all live near each other (for example if there are lots of neighbours and friends on the same road), you could come out and sing/raise glasses/clap from your front doors. It might even be possible to arrange for the hearse to drive through en route to the crem.
  • Everyone wears clothes in the loved one’s favourite colour.

Ideas that would work well as a group but that are longer-term include:

  • Planning an awesome celebration of life for later in the year.
  • Collating a collection (digitally or on paper) of memories – photos, letters, videos and so on – people can contribute, and the results can be shared. You can use good old-fashioned snail mail, a Facebook group, or contribute directly on a platform like muchloved.com.
  • Similarly, consider creating something quite specific to the personality of your loved one – perhaps compiling a playlist together, or a cookbook of remembered meals, for example.
  • Keeping in contact with one another by phone, text, video calls or whatever works best for you. Don’t stop talking about your loved one. Say their name. Cry together. Laugh together. Look out especially for their close family.
  • Collectively raise money for a fitting charity in their name. You could use some of the above ideas to do this, or something else entirely.

Together, alone

If you can’t or don’t want to join up together to do the sorts of ideas suggested above, you can do many of them alone, and still feel connected with your loved one.

The key thing to remember is to set aside some time. Of course, you’re going to be thinking of them all day anyway, but carving out a specified few minutes or few hours to focus your thoughts can provide the emotional space that a funeral would do. This can also help to contain some of the more overwhelming emotions that hit at other times too – knowing that at, say, 2pm you’re going to hold a personal ritual, can really be a reassuring anchor when you are hit with a sudden wave of grief in the morning, for example.

Some ideas to do alone include:

Plant a tree or a plant when you can't attend a funeral ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
  • Planting a tree or a plant, or sowing seeds in your loved one’s memory.
  • Writing them a letter.
  • Doing something they loved to do: spending time gardening; baking a cake; booking a holiday to their favourite place (after the lockdown of course); reading a book…
  • Spending that allotted time just with your thoughts about them: maybe wallow in a bath, sit in a chair and listen to a piece of music that reminds you of them, light a candle… just allow the feelings to come up and allow yourself to cry, laugh, dance or do whatever you need to do.
  • Consider holding a small object, like a stone or similar, during the times you are thinking of your loved one. When you feel ready, you can bury it in the garden or release it into the sea or a river, as you see fit. This can be a powerful way to let go and to say goodbye.
  • Be creative! Write a poem, knit a scarf in their favourite colour, make a collage of pictures, create a little ‘shrine’ to them, patchwork their clothes, edit a video tribute… Whatever it is that you do, be mindful and focused on them as you create.

Whatever you choose to do, please be gentle with yourself. Grieving is always a tough process and especially in these strange days.

Do get in touch if you’d like any help in creating a way to mark your loved one in a way that is fitting to you and to them. I’d also love to hear if you’ve tried any of these ideas or you have others to add.

And please share this post with anyone who is bereaved at this time.

You can message me here or my phone number is 07929 764162.