Dr Helen Frisby, independent historian
Just over twelve months ago, fuelled by coffee, toasted bagels and an impending deadline, I noted in the concluding chapter of my book Traditions of Death and Burial how, over the past millennium:
The ideal (if not always the practice) of a ‘good’ death nonetheless has remained remarkably consistent down the ages.”
In the book, which traces popular English funeral customs from the Norman Conquest to the present day, I contended that although ritual responses to the existential challenge of mortality may (sometimes appear to) change over time, the underpinning and profoundly human need to confront, navigate and negotiate continued bonds with the dying and dead remains as strong as ever. I still think this holds true – but how that historical contingency has changed since I wrote the above sentence. And by change, I mean not the incremental shifts over years, decades and centuries which normally are our historians’ preserve. Back ‘then’ – mere weeks ago – most of us had never heard of social distancing; now Covid-19 is forcing a radical volte-face not only in how we live, but also in how we die.
Until we understood more about how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted, isolating the dying and dead is a logical precaution in managing the spread of the resulting disease Covid-19. Thus it is that there have emerged heartbreaking tales of spouses, children and parents obliged by infection controls to convey hasty goodbyes to dying loved ones through windows and by videolink, and in many instances being unable to be present at all. In response UK Health Secretary Matthew Hancock has instructed hospitals to permit relatives to visit dying Covid-19 patients, although at the time of writing it is unclear whether this has yet to actually happen.
Hancock’s intervention constitutes acknowledgement that the end of life has very rarely been a purely pragmatic affair; the seventeenth-century Puritan who declared that his ‘stinking karkass’ might happily be disposed of along with the household rubbish being the proverbial exception proving this particular rule. Like most historians, sociologists, social anthropologists and others who research the end of life, I would distinguish here between death the biological event, and dying the social, emotional and spiritual process whereby the dying/dead and living come together in ritualised fashion to mark this profound transition from one sphere of existence to another. This then is the fundamental purpose of deathbed and funerary rituals – to, in popular parlance, ‘give them a good send-off.’
Jeremy Taylor’s Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying (1651) is an elegant articulation of a long- and deeply-held conviction that one’s deathbed should be the culmination of a long life well lived; that decedents should be prepared materially, emotionally and above all spiritually, and in a state of lucidity at their final moments; and that death should take place surrounded by loved ones and other supporters. Thus the current Covid-19 control measures directly confound most, if not all of these ideals which stretch back right to Anglo-Saxon times and remain largely constant in the present day.
However when it comes to the funeral ceremony, the picture is slightly more nuanced and (at least to me as a funeral historian!) intriguing. In some Local Authority areas funerals are presently taking place behind closed doors, while in others only small numbers may attend a greatly curtailed rite. The vexed question of who ‘may’ attend funerals is an old one – in the Middle Ages the poor were positively welcomed, as their prayers were believed to be especially efficacious for the soul now entering Purgatory. However from the seventeenth century onward attendance at funerals increasingly was restricted by a customary system of ‘bidding’ with invitations. More lately, a well-attended ceremony has again become a key marker of a good send-off – sometimes aided by technology in the form of videolinks for those unable to be physically present. That said however, even before Covid-19 a small but growing minority of Britons were opting for so-called ‘direct disposal’ without ceremony – I’m very often asked about this when I give talks. Whether or not the effect of Covid-19 will be to accelerate this new (or revived?) trend actively to own and manage the attendance at funerals remains to be seen.
Thus, while Covid-19 is directly challenging certain historically-situated norms of what it means to die well, it also highlights the dynamically plastic nature of Ars Moriendi, the ‘craft of dying’, over time. While I can’t predict precisely how this present crisis will further that process of continual ritual (re)invention, having studied funeral customs for twenty years I have faith in human resilience and creativity to meet the challenge with aplomb.
About the Author: Dr Helen Frisby is an internationally recognised expert on the history and folklore of death, dying and bereavement. She is author of Traditions of Death and Burial (Bloomsbury, 2019) as well as several academic articles and book chapters on related topics. Helen has appeared on the History Channel and BBC radio discussing the history of funeral customs, and is presently researching the occupational lore of gravedigging. She’s Secretary of the Association for the Study of Death & Society (ASDS) and a Council Member of the Folklore Society. Helen is Researcher Development Manager at the University of the West of England, Bristol.