‘We did the order of service with a Yorkshire Tea bag’ - Giving funerals the personal touch in the age of Covid

With funeral numbers limited by lockdown, personalised ceremonies are growing ever more important to those who have lost loved ones. Chris Burn reports.

“The funeral industry is not renowned for its use of technology but we have embraced it in the past year,” reflects Sarah Jones as she considers how her job has changed as a result of the Covid pandemic. “We have focused on what is possible. There has been lots of live-streaming, lots of online tributes but also lots of people lining the streets when a funeral is taking place. Some people have found it really difficult but other people have adjusted their plans to still create really beautiful funerals.”

When Jones co-founded Full Circle Funerals back in 2016 with the aim of offering services that moved away from tradition and instead focused on more accurately reflecting the lives, loves and passions of the person who had passed away, it was impossible to anticipate the restrictions and impositions coronavirus would bring about on usual ways of grieving.

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Currently, a maximum of 30 people are allowed to attend ceremonies, with that reduced down to six for wakes and the scattering of ashes.

Full Circle Funerals' Director Sarah Jones, photographed in the headquarters of the funeral home in Guiseley. Picture: Ernesto Rogata.

But Jones says despite the obvious challenges, there have been some silver linings to emerge from the bleak situation.

“There have certainly been disadvantages but there have also been some plus sides. Services have been arguably more intimate. Some people are more likely to speak because there are less people there. People lining the streets on the way to a service has also been beautiful.”

Jones worked as an NHS doctor before being involved in community care for adults with learning difficulties prior to becoming a funeral director and says her experiences on the medical frontlines set on the path to establishing a company that is focused on compassion above tradition.

“I started my professional life as a medic. I was working in A&E and had to deliver some really difficult news and I had a sense I was quite comfortable with that responsibility even though I was quite young at the time. I felt that was something I wanted to do well and wanted to be there for the people involved. That seemed different to some of my colleagues, who shied away from those situations.

Rachel and Martin Roberts

“A couple of people I spoke to referred to arranging a funeral for a loved one and said they couldn’t understand why they had made the decisions they did. I also went to funerals myself that were fairly similar but for people I knew were very different. That triggered in me the idea that I want to bring everything I have learnt from health and social care into this area.”

One person to have used Full Circle’s services in recent months is Rachel Roberts who had the tragic job of arranging a service for her husband Martin after he died in January at the age of just 55, only ten weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

“I still feel like I am in a bad dream and he is going to walk in the back door,” she says of the loss of Martin, who worked as a window fitter for local firm REP Windows.

“He was very proud of his work. He has left quite a hole at his company because he was always very handy. He hated the phrase ‘that will do’ because he wanted things to be perfect.”

Full Circle Funerals' Director Sarah Jones, photographed in the headquarters of the funeral home in Guiseley. Picture: Ernesto Rogata.

Rachel says her and her two children are still suffering a deep sense of shock and loss from Martin’s passing but the close-knit family from Yeadon in West Yorkshire say they were grateful for the chance to use his funeral as a chance to celebrate what he had meant to them and share some of their many happy memories.

“It was very uplifting - it sounds a bit strange but we still like to watch the video. The celebrant we used knew him and had know him for years. She did the service and was absolutely amazing. She usually does weddings and she incorporated a lot of his sense of humour. There was more laughter than there was tears. It was quite a surprise. We did shed tears but there was a lot of laughter. It was just Martin down to a tee.”

The Roberts family joined the growing number of people opting for personal touches to make funerals memorable both for those who can attend and those unable to be there.

In Martin’s case, that involved his favourite drink - Yorkshire Tea.

“Martin loved his Yorkshire Tea so we did the Order of Service with a Yorkshire Tea bag and thought other people who couldn’t attend could raise a cup of tea to him at home,” Rachel explains. “He drank tea until the cows came home.”

Those who were in attendance were given an afternoon tea box - created by Beverley Bishop from local shop The Shed - at the end so they could have a slice of cake with their tea and remember Martin in an individual wake at home.

“We met in Halifax which is where I am from, it was a kind of blind date,” Rachel says of her relationship with Martin. “He was very quiet and shy but we just hit it off.

“He had a very dry sense of humour and he just made people laugh. That side of him came out when he got to know you.”

She says a few weeks before Martin’s shock diagnosis in November he had complained of pain in his side and problems with his vision.

“Being a typical Yorkshireman, he said there is nothing wrong with me it is just a trapped nerve. But he came home from work on November 4 and had three seizures. He couldn’t talk and got taken off to hospital.

“It just seemed to go from bad to worse. They knew straight away what it was - Stage 4, a quite aggressive form of cancer in his brain. It was too dangerous to operate on it.”

She says their final Christmas together as a family was a poignant experience. “He took a downturn on Christmas Eve but the palliative care nurse from Wheatfields Hospice came out and altered his medication. By teatime he was talking away and eating. He rallied himself because he wanted that last Christmas. It was a sad day but a happy one as well. He said right from diagnosis, ‘You have got to find the joy, happiness and beauty in life’.”

Among Martin’s requests for the funeral were having the hymn Jerusalem - as well as the Prodigy song Firestarter.

“I was adamant I didn’t want Firestarter but my dad and son said you have got to do it,” says Rachel. “As a compromise, we did it when people were walking out.

“We had a photo wall and played the Bruno Mars song Just The Way You Are. That was our song and he would tell me he would always think of me when he heard it out at work.

“It ended with a little video clip of when we went to an outdoor cinema to watch The Greatest Showman, it was bucketing it down and we were drenched. I wanted to take a picture of us both with a picnic blanket over your heads and I didn’t realise I was videoing it and he was pulling a silly face.”

She says Martin was a great family man.

“He was an absolutely fantastic dad, very supportive and pushing the kids to do what they wanted to do in life. We were just one of those families where it was just us four and we were happy in each others’ company.

“We have got lots of happy memories. We used to go to Cornwall every single year.

“Martin lost his parents when he was quite young and he used to say never fall out with your parents because you just don’t know what it around the corner. He would never go to bed on an argument - he had to solve it before he went to sleep.

“I’m hoping he will be proud of us - it is just us three and we have pulled together and are helping each other get through day-to-day life.”

Another person to use Full Circle to plan a funeral with a difference was Gill Hendy following the death of her mother Marjorie Linn.

“My experience of funerals in the past has been the traditional one,” she explains. “The Full Circle approach is totally different.”

In addition to the event having a purple theme in honour of her mum’s favourite colour, they placed a bag of her favourite chocolate – Cadbury’s Daily Milk Buttons – in her coffin, along with cards and letters from family members. She also made sure the music reflected her mother’s upbeat outlook on life.

“I thought back to all the songs I used to remember her singing during my childhood – Abba, songs from musicals, the Glenn Miller orchestra. She was full of life. She was a nursing sister and midwife and her late 20s she and my godmother went across from Harrogate to Canada to do nursing. It wasn’t very common in those days and they made the local press.

“My father was a doctor who worked in Canada and she met him on the way back to the UK. She loved life and she had a great sense of humour.”

Hendy says: “One of the things that was nice was we chose everything ourselves with members of our family. It also gave me an opportunity to come to terms with it.

“I was dreading having to read a eulogy but because we had planned it all when it came to the day I was able to enjoy it.

Hendy adds: “I think the most important thing is to do what you feel is right – not only for yourself but for the person whose funeral it is. There is a tendency to be driven by tradition and what people expect of you. You can be led down a route that isn’t what you want.

“But with this approach it gives you the opportunity to do what you feel the best thing is.”

Maintaining memories of lost loved ones

Sarah Jones says a key part of Full Circle’s ethos is based on the ‘continuing bonds’ theory - under which rather than funerals being part of people ‘moving on’ from grief, they are instead an opportunity to begin the process of actively maintaining memories of the deceased.

“A funeral is an opportunity to help people feel more hopeful and be able to set them off on a more positive grief journey,” she says.

“When the death has happened in difficult circumstances, it is particularly important. Funerals are taking place at a time when people are already more isolated. The process of arranging and attending a funeral with the right support is one which sees people hopefully begin to have some closure.” 

For more information about Full Circle Funerals, visit their website.

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