Queen's Policy Engagement

Coronavirus is changing funerals and how we deal with the dead

Given the wide-ranging impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic, how we deal with our dead will inevitably change says Professor Heather Conway.

Coronavirus is changing funerals and how we deal with the dead

As the death rate climbs from COVID-19, what happens to the bodies of those who’ve died will become an increasingly pressing issue. People who have lost loved ones will have to contend with the additional trauma of not being able to give them a proper “send off”, as funerals change dramatically in the short-term.

The law’s treatment of human remains has always been premised on two things: respect for the dead, and public health concerns around bodily decay and risk of disease. And while all possible steps will be taken to uphold respect for the dead, in pandemics the emphasis inevitably shifts to public health.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 is the emergency legislation passed by the UK parliament to deal with an outbreak that could affect up to 80% of the UK population. The act introduces a range of sweeping powers that allow public bodies to respond to the pandemic. These and other government measures will have a significant impact on what happens to the dead and how funerals are conducted in the coming weeks and months – as I outline below:


1. Family-only funerals

As part of the lockdown introduced on March 23, funerals can still go ahead to prevent a backlog building up – but with attendance limited to immediate family.

This will make social distancing easier, protecting not only the small numbers of mourners, but also funeral directors and other cemetery staff who will play a vital role as mortality rates increase.

Of course, the emotional impact of altered funeral formats on the living will be horrendous. Closed coffins prevent families from seeing a loved one who may have died alone in hospital, or kissing them goodbye. And limiting attendance at funerals will upset relatives and friends of the deceased who cannot physically attend.

Live-streaming funerals may help – as some families are doing – but many people will feel that it’s not the same – with the wider social support that funerals provide, which is such an important part of the grieving process, lost as well.

Please click here to continue reading this article, which first appeared on The Conversation.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Professor Heather Conway
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Professor Conway’s research focuses on the laws surrounding the treatment of the dead; the legal frameworks around death, burial and cremation; and decision-making powers over human remains. She is the author of The Law and the Dead (Routledge, 2016) and is a Council Member and trustee of the Cremation Society. Professor Conway also writes and researches in property law and succession law, and is one of a number of legal scholars interested in ‘law and emotion’.

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