Commemorating grief in a pandemic

words: David Zebedee

I came to the industry having experienced loss and bereavement in my personal life over many years and had a very clear sense from the start of the importance of the whole process, beginning with bringing a loved one into our care all the way up to the conclusion of the funeral proceedings. I learnt very quickly how individual the grieving process was and took pride in our ability as a family-run independent firm to have the flexibility to do whatever we could to try to meet our customers’ needs.

I was also struck early on by the pressures placed on families, by themselves and others, to ‘do right by’ the deceased in their funeral arrangements and meet certain expectations, commonalities, and traditions. I also witnessed how bereaved families processed their grief as arrangements and events proceeded. Anyone working in this industry cannot ignore how inherently cathartic this process is for the bereaved or fail to recognise that point for so many families when the strain of their grief finally breaks, and the tension starts to ease.

When the pandemic hit, I saw death thrust into the public eye, with the public discussing death more candidly. Something that had previously seemed such a private experience was suddenly the topic of open and daily discussion.

The entire country was thrown into a state of flux – full of uncertainty and unknowns. The bereaved have always looked to funeral directors as a source of information and guidance but we suddenly found that we knew little more about what was happening than those we were trying to support. At first, we did not know whether it would even be possible for funerals to continue, let alone under what circumstances.

We were forced to make very difficult decisions to protect our staff and customers and I saw my role quickly move from that of the supportive facilitator through the grieving processes to someone who always seemed to be the bearer of bad news. All the flexibility I had previously enjoyed being able to offer families was lost and we either could not accommodate their requests or had to renege on agreed arrangements as restrictions changed over time. Having to explain to families that they could not sing at the funeral or bear their own loved one into a chapel seemed so very unnatural.

The bereavement process is very individual, but some common parts of the funeral process are very important for people, and this has changed the way in which people have grieved. Losing opportunities to gather, say farewell and see a loved one at peace has had a significant impact on some people’s ability to process their grief. Not being able to hold wakes has been even more significant as they offer a critical opportunity to gather together and celebrate the life of a loved one and find a sense of closure. Many felt guilty that they were not able to deliver on the expectations of others or their lost loved one in the funeral arrangements, even though the restrictions have been out of their control.

I have seen many families take the decision to delay ashes burial or interments so they had a better chance of offering a ‘proper send-off’. This extended the bereavement process and I believe will have interrupted a normal grieving pattern for many people.

I had started exploring options on the range of memorial products N.E. Downing Blackheath Ltd carried before the pandemic, but this fell to the bottom of our list of priorities when COVID-19 hit. I soon began to realise how unfortunate this was as we progressed through the pandemic. I felt I needed – and wanted – to do more for our customers, to offer new ways for families to honour their loved ones and the need to feel a connection to the person they had lost. Families were looking for tangible ways to connect with the deceased to help them process their grief.

We already worked with many long-standing, highly rated companies on memorial items, but many of their services were priced beyond the financial means of some customers. I wanted to find a way to offer an additional affordable alternative that would suit a breadth of tastes but could still be accessed through our firm. Anubis Memorials Ltd was born when I realised that my wife Gemma and I had the expertise between us to create our own memorial and keepsake business.

Of course, developing and launching a new business amid a global pandemic and Brexit has been incredibly challenging. We faced difficulties sourcing materials, lost suppliers, and faced ever-increasing costs. However, we were determined and Anubis Memorials Ltd began trading in April 2021. We wanted customers to be able to work with trusted sources, but we also wanted to support local independent businesses. Our business model is not based on direct sales, and we only offer services through trusted suppliers such as local funeral directors and I would be happy to talk to any in the West Midlands. We are also endeavouring to use UK-based suppliers and to support small and medium businesses in our region wherever possible.

It was also very important to both us and N.E. Downing Blackheath Ltd that we support charitable causes, so £5 is donated to a local or grassroots charity for every item we sell. We have enjoyed a great response from our customer base and are now in the process of reaching out to other local independent businesses in our area.

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