From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: The technology of bereavement

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April 9.

“Always go to other people’s funerals,” advised Yogi Berra, “otherwise they won’t come to yours”.

The list of other people’s funerals I have not attended is growing. Early in March my godfather died at 94 in London. A fortnight later a contemporary died in Scotland, six weeks after the death of his wife. None of these fatalities, as it happens, were directly from Covid. Pneumonia, cancer, a fall in old age, have not taken a vacation during the pandemic.

We are particularly diminished by the sudden loss of our friends in Scotland. We began our careers and our families together, living and working alongside each other for three decades, and then regularly exchanging visits as our paths diverged. In John Donne’s terms, a full promontory has been washed away from our lives.

In each case, the lockdown has prevented us from attending the final ceremony. In Scotland the current rules permit a congregation of no more than twenty. They must not sing, for fear of infection, although by arrangement a bagpiper is allowed. What science has determined that the coronavirus will be safely contained within a bagpipe I know not. In any case our friend, from a professional Edinburgh family, a world-class Russian linguist in his working life, had, like many Scots, no sympathy at all for kilts, tartans, bagpipes, and, at least until Brexit, the nationalist movement.

Instead we depend on Obitus, which describes itself as ‘a leading UK provider of bereavement technology services.’ The firm was apparently founded a decade ago, an indication that virtual mourning was not invented by Covid. It has expanded in the last year, working with funeral directors to connect the congregations unable to attend. We sit at home, three hundred miles away, equipped with a login and a password, and five minutes before the ceremony is due to begin, an empty, unnamed, funeral chapel appears on our screen.

It is easy to criticise the proceedings. There is one fixed camera at the rear of the chapel, transmitting an unchanging view of the backs of twenty mourners. The sound quality is indifferent, the visual effects non-existent. After half an hour the congregation leaves separately, unable to attend a wake larger than six people, and we close the lid on the laptop. In a week’s time we will repeat the process for my godfather.

Obitus fully occupies the digital universe, with all its perils. The small print of the contract specifies that, ‘in particular, we will not be liable for any damage or loss caused by a distributed denial-of-service attack, any viruses trojans, worms, logic bombs, keystroke loggers, spyware, adware or other material which is malicious or technologically harmful that may infect your computer, peripheral computer equipment, computer programs, data or other proprietary material as a result of your use of the Website or you downloading any material posted or sold on the Website or from any website linked to it.’ Not problems faced by a clergyman with his prayer book.

But as in so many Covid contexts, the technology is better, much better, than nothing at all. Whilst the long-standing debate about the threat posed to privacy by digital communication becomes ever more urgent, in the pandemic computer screens have in all kinds of ways helped to keep families and networks of friends together. And they need not be the final means of bidding farewell. In the case of our Scottish friends, a more relaxed memorial is planned for when physical gatherings are once more possible.

That is what we must do when the pandemic is over. We will spend our days celebrating the lives of those we have lost.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: No Alarm Clocks …

Albin Hillert/WCC (World Council of Churches)

February 10, 2021.

No one needs an alarm clock in Greece. We have church bells. Every morning at 7:30 am sharp the bells toll for morning service. It’s a cheery burst of eight bouncy peals in bouts of ding, ding, dings. And ends in a burst of dings like a mother clapping her hands in her children’s bedrooms to wake them up and prepare them for the day, ‘Come on guys, up and at ‘em!’ The bells toll again at 8 o’clock, and again at 8:30 in case you missed the first two. At 5:30 pm the bells toll again to raise you from siesta slumber for vespers. You always know what time it is because there are churches, ranging from cathedrals to tiny chapels, everywhere to gladden our hearts.

It’s the sombre single peals in between which pierce them. Each time we hear the mournful tone like a long low groan we all wonder for whom the bell tolls. In our neighbourhood alone nine people have been lost to Covid. (Make that ten, another one died this morning) Beyond our neighbourhood, at the end of my street is a snazzy electrical goods store. It’s owner is a flirty silver fox. I mean, he was. He was taken too. As was the sister of the owner of one of the boutiques in which I shop. As was the real estate agent’s wife and the city’s top lawyer and, and, and. It’s the Grim Reaper. The average age of the victims is dropping. Here in Greece it started at around 78. It’s down to 62. Now, with the mutated strains, there’s a terrifying development. It’s striking children. For that reason, and because our case counts have been steadily rising, Greece just ended its third lockdown.

The pandemic is colour-coded. Red means lockdown. Here in the north we just exited red and have entered Orange. We are doing everything we can to stay out of the red. So, we wear two masks now. Doubling up does help. Also, there are psychological effects in a society like Greece’s of having no physical contact with anyone but your direct family. We’re not used to standing far apart, we’re not used to seeing someone and stepping back. We are all about being up close. In your face, but in the best way. I don’t remember the last time I was hugged, I don’t even remember the last time I’be shaken anyone’s hand. In a society where all people, women, men, other and children greet each other with the traditional double kiss and walk along arm in arm, not being permitted to touch is creating an atmosphere alien to the Hellenic way of life.

It’s been unseasonably warm. We are literally having the famed halcyon days. And they are glorious. It’s a divine feeling walking around in a light shirt in the middle of winter. But in a couple of days it will all be over. The Halcyon phenomenon has passed for this year. The forecast is a severe drop in temperature, to around -10, and snow. At least if we are housebound the pandemic doesn’t seem so bad. A positive can be made from this negative by keeping the home cosy.

So, I will shop this week for more groceries than usual just in case the streets become snowbound. Something will always be simmering on the stove. The home will always have the aroma of freshly baked bread, pies, cakes and cookies and I shall keep doing my 7 minute high intensity workouts to compensate. I find I’m watching television a lot more, and videos online. It’s my version of conversation. I watched the famous interview of Cormack McCarthy with Oprah on YouTube. In it McCarthy says he was never bothered by anything as long as he had food and shoes. He says you can get by without lots of things but without food and shoes you can’t do much.

We are all spending a lot more time in our slippers seeing as we are indoors most of the time so the shoes are not a problem. And I’ll just keep the food coming. I cook every day for my mother and her sister who lives on the fifth floor of our building. They love traditional Greek food as well as the old byzantine recipes. So today I’m making them Imam Bayeldi the sumptuous eggplant dish that was so delicious the imam for whom it was cooked fainted, either from the intense flavour or from the amount of olive oil it takes to cook it in. That’s what Imam Bayeldi means, the imam fainted. To go with it I made them one of their favourite comfort foods, Atzem Pilaf. It’s a divinely fragrant pilaf, cinnamon scented and studded with slivers of toasted almonds. April, they say. It will take until April to bring the situation under control. That’s what the modelling is telling the health experts. Until April we must remain on full alert and in some form of lockdown. Until April.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK. What we might have done …

May 4. All of us, especially those in complete lockdown, spend quality time wondering what we might have done when we had the chance to do it.

In Britain we had perhaps six to eight weeks when we knew that coronavirus was not something that just happened in far away countries.  We had a week to ten days when it was clear that an imposed lockdown was coming.  What use did we make of this precious time?

Visiting the hairdresser is so obvious and so universal (except for those no longer burdened with a thatch) that it is not worth mentioning.  A friend sent us a cartoon.  A sex worker is leaning through a car window.  ‘I’ll do anything you want for £50.’  A voice from inside the car: ‘Do you cut hair?’

For us the major regret was not attending a family celebration of my wife’s birthday in London.  As it happened this was arranged for March 14, just over a week before the closure.  My wife and I were still considering that we might travel when we received fierce instruction from each of our children.  They addressed us much as we did them in the most irresponsible phase of their adolescence: ‘What you are proposing to do represents an unnecessary threat to your health and wellbeing.  We have a duty of care towards you, and you will do as we say.’ Thus, the tables were turned, perhaps for good.

Since then, the risk register has evolved.  Dying has become one of the activities to get through before the shut-down.  On Sunday we had a grocery delivery, and fell to talking (at a safe distance) to the man who had pushed the trolley up the drive.  He said that he had lately lost his father.  We sympathised with his coronavirus suffering, but he explained that his father had died, much to his relief, just before the outbreak.  He had been in and out of hospital for a year and would have hated to have his treatment sidelined by the pandemic.  His family had been with him during his final hours.  And they had a good funeral (he also explained the difficulty of arranging it in the midst of severe flooding in our area, but that is now a forgotten story).

The last funeral that I attended myself before the crisis was of a cousin.  He too had been undergoing hospital treatment for a year.  He too died in the company of his wife and children.  He too had a great send-off, at which his grandchildren and a university colleague spoke movingly of his life. 

The widespread stories of final hours being spent only in the company of medical staff, of tight restrictions on attendance at funerals, of cancer appointments falling by three quarters, of cancelled treatments for a host of serious conditions, reinforce the tale told by the delivery man.  For those who still have time ahead of us, better of course to stand and take our chance.  But for those for whom the grim reaper was already at the door, better he entered before all this happened.   

From Eileen in Spain – Death during the Lockdown

Before the lockdown Spain has always buried their dead very quickly. The time between death and the funeral is usually 48 hours. This tradition maybe due to the 800 year Moorish occupation or that the temperatures in southern Spain can be very high.

Last week my husband passed away during the night. Within 2 hours of death the doctor had confirmed the situation and the undertaker had taken him with away.

The next morning on getting the death certificate the undertaker informed me that they were going to have to cremate him at 4pm the same day and I could come with 3 people and they would deliver the ashes to my home the next morning.

That was another shock.

However, I found the strength to email with the help of others most of his friends and family including nearly everyone living on our resort. We asked everyone at 4pm to stop say a prayer then raise a glass to my husband Alan.

I prepared a table of remembrance with his photo, candle, slippers, wedding ring, railway magazine called “The Oily Rag” and a Fulham Football souvenir. I found on the internet a list of funeral prayers and appropriate funeral music on Youtube. Then crying my eyes out I held the funeral for half an hour.

I did not want this lockdown to prevent me sending off my husband without a prayer and au revoir.

Since then I have encountered so much love from people I know.

As it is very difficult to obtain sympathy cards in Spain I have received about 50 handmade cards expressing sympathy. People went to so much trouble in this time of isolation, hand painting beautiful flowers, with wonderful calligraphy and verses.

This is truly the time when you really miss human contact.

Death comes close, by John Fielden, Tadcaster, UK

Kirkby Wharfe church

Until this week the daily casualties from the virus did not strike home. Now however we have experienced two deaths.  One was the mother of my son in law who died in hospital in Scotland after a serious operation; the other was the brother of my son’s godmother, who caught Covid 19 (as did his wife) and died later in hospital in Guildford, mourned by many of the staff, as he was a governor of the trust.

My son in law’s experience in arranging a funeral must be common for many.  First of course a church service was impossible, so he hunted around in Scotland for a crematorium that would take family and mourners at the service.  Finally he settled on Perth which allows up to 10 people.  Near me in Yorkshire both York and Leeds councils do not allow any family at all at their crematoria and grieving relatives must go to Halifax.

This afternoon a short half hour service was streamed live from the Perth crematorium and 58 people including us tuned in to watch.  A wonderful clergyman (a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland) with a soft Scottish voice led the service, while family members read a psalm and a lesson and my son in law gave a moving tribute to his mother. Recorded music from a choir and a Royal Marines band provided the start and finish of proceedings.  The whole experience was very moving and as close to the real thing as could be done – a triumph for technology – for a change!

Kirkby Wharfe church – interior

Having finished watching the service I strolled in the lovely sunlight along our village green to our 12th century late Norman church a hundred yards away.  Sitting there inside in the cool with sunlight shafting through the stained glass windows was a fitting coda to the afternoon.  For 870 years this lovely church has given comfort to villagers at times of plague, civil war and pestilence.  Now the church authorities or Magisterium have decreed no-one can enter. How lucky I am that, as church treasurer, I have a key that allows me to break this crazy rule.

http://www.stmarystadcaster.co.uk/a-tour-of-st-johns-kirkby-wharfe.html.

from Steph G in London, UK: 2 weddings, a funeral and Passover …

April 9. We’ve just had a week of contrast- 2 weddings and a funeral and Passover- all completely governed by the Covid 19 situation. As far as the weddings go, I just hope everyone can get into their good clothes next year.

The funeral was tragic. A cousin died in Leeds (not Covid related). His 2 sons were self isolating in the South and couldn’t attend. The mourning prayers were held remotely – around 50 people signing on to take part. It was surreal and threw up more questions – do you stand when you would normally? It actually felt a bit voyeuristic watching everybody but in the circumstances this was one way to say goodbye.

Passover, on the other hand was almost as chaotic as normal except in 6 different households at once. At least the washing up was manageable. I wonder how the very orthodox are coming to terms with the constraints that we have now? Similarly, with Easter and Ramadan – perhaps it will change religious observances for ever?

Today, was the first time I heard stats on survival and not the death stats. We become more and more cynical about the news we are being fed- from Boris’ condition to the NHS ability to cope and any exit strategy, or not.