2020 was a difficult year. The sudden proximity of death in a society which has distanced itself from death and the dead will leave a deep scar on the UK psyche.
The UK already has a very remote relationship with death. After death, the body is hidden away, while other cultures display it or even bring it into the house. The physicality of death is something that a lot of us are very distant from in the twenty-first century. This is not completely a bad thing. It reflects the huge leaps medicine has taken to improve the length and quality of our lives.
It is interesting that when we come close to death, either through our own ill health or through the loss of a loved one, we find ourselves drawn back to the familiarity of the church even when we do not share its beliefs.
With the UK, and with England in particular, the institution runs deeper still. It is difficult to pin down a job which is the secular equivalent of a vicar. In one day they might stand in as an unofficial counsellor, a fundraiser, officiant, or charity worker. Even now the Church of England remains a pillar of the state, with its bishops sitting in the House of Lords as the ‘Lords Spiritual’.
All this suggests something which goes deeper than a purely spiritual appeal. I spoke with the Rev. Geoff Eze, an Anglican vicar based in Stoke-on-Trent, about what draws people to the Church in difficult times. He said:
“Anglicanism is deeply woven into the fabric of what it means to be English. This image of a vicar is interwoven into the British collective psyche. So, in some respects it’s like the eternal aspect of the state stepping in.
“For example, I did a funeral, and I remember sitting with the family, and they weren’t religious in any way, shape, or form. I went with my collar to visit them, and I said ‘would you like me to wear a suit instead of my robes?’ They said no, we want your robes, we want your collar. We want what you represent.
“There’s something about the ritual which is a deeper language of communication. Even if people don’t go [to church] they have a degree of feeling comforted by the fact that it’s there.”
There’s something about the ritual which is a deeper language of communication. Even if people don’t go [to church] they have a degree of feeling comforted by the fact that it’s there”Rev. Geoff Eze
Grief is an immensely confusing and discombobulating experience. It is the essence of upheaval; like when you walk down the stairs in the dark and think there is one less step than there actually is, the nauseating lurch and panic as your foot falls through the empty space, leaving you grasping at anything to hand to regain your balance.
It is in the medium and long term that the full effect begins to present itself. You catch yourself thinking that you must ring up that person, or think about what you will buy them for their birthday. As the dust settles from the legalities and formalities that surround death, the hole left by the dead starts to yawn open.
Little wonder then that there is comfort in a familiar sense of ceremony, even if only from a sense of duty towards the dead. In moments of disruption like this, that little sense of structure can be some of the help we need to find our feet again. Geoff explains: “People want to have a language that they can connect with. It doesn’t mean the pain goes, we find a way of travelling with it.”
In the era of Covid in particular, when people have been unable to properly mourn the passing of loved ones, this sense of structure around grief is even more important. Funerals conducted by video link are not the same of course, but the symbolism is still there, if more distant. For Geoff, COVID has presented all new challenges, particularly in getting to know the deceased to form a picture of them and their life. He said:
“This year I’ve done the most funerals that I’ve done in any given year. It ranges from the youngest person being in their late thirties, the oldest being ninety odd.
“I needed to listen more, because there’s so much noise. The noise level around Covid has just been phenomenal.”
The physical risk to those who work around death, be they religious leaders and other officiates or funeral directors and undertakers, is something which places them on the same tier as the medical staff who care for us in life and the essential workers who keep life moving in spite of everything.
Death is at the best of times a massive upending of our lives, and the structures and ceremonies that surround it are more important now than ever. The courage of people who maintain them to give the departed as much dignity as possible is truly commendable. It is one of many small things which may, eventually, help us once more to our feet.
Words by Kit Roberts
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