My mum was cremated today, and we didn’t even know.
She died in hospital on March 11th, 2020, not from Covid-19, but from cancer. I was there to hold her hand as her life finally slipped away – undoubtedly the most heart wrenching experience and simultaneously the most amazingly poignant experience, I have ever witnessed.
Mum wanted to be cremated and my brother and I started preparations to fulfil her wishes as best we could. We contacted a local funeral services company, we chose the type of ceremony, chose the coffin, discussed the flowers, wrote guest lists, planned the wake and everything else that goes into a funeral for a loved family member.
And we finally settled on a venue and a date, two week’s hence, Monday 30th March. We placed an announcement in the local newspaper whilst also informing as many family and friends as we could think of.
This was, of course, in the midst of the rising Coronavirus pandemic here in the UK (and most of the rest of the world). It seems a distant memory now, but it was only two weeks ago, and in that short time everything has changed beyond recognition.
We quickly learned that most of mum’s friends, who, like her, were over 70yrs old, would have to self isolate due to the coronavirus, and would not be able to attend the funeral. We then saw the UK slide into full lockdown over the next few days and so we urgently sought advice from the funeral director on what to do. They couldn’t help, they knew as little as we did, and government guidance on funerals during the pandemic was still conspicuous by its absence.
Many frantic discussions ensued, emotions were high, and the guidance we finally received was that, at best, we might be able to have a close family funeral only. Guidance was no more than five people to attend and no more than three people in the hearse. But we were warned even that might change, nobody knew, and with a large family made up of siblings, children, grandchildren, a great grandchild and a wide circle of friends, this wasn’t at all what we wanted or planned for mum.
We wanted her funeral to be a celebration of her life, an occasion for all, an occasion for crying, laughing, hugging and for telling stories which clearly wasn’t going to happen, and it was with many heavy hearts that we reluctantly decided to have a cremation-only. We would delay the ceremony until later in the year once the pandemic had blown over.
What we hadn’t appreciated was that this also meant a shift in venue and a change of date – cremations without ceremonies don’t take place at standard crematoriums. We therefore wrote to everyone to explain the change and everyone understood – these were difficult times which made for difficult decisions.
And so it felt strange yesterday – 30th March – as that was mum’s original funeral date. We received messages from family and friends sending their thoughts, prayers and love but we also had to explain that we still didn’t have a date for the rearranged cremation. These were challenging times for getting anything done – switchboards were jammed, people were being furloughed and the funeral industry was facing the same challenges as everyone else. Nevertheless the silence was troubling, and frustrating, and so when I emailed the funeral company yesterday and still didn’t get a reply, I decided to call them today.
After holding for a while I got through to Sue, I gave her the reference number and was placed back on hold whilst she checked the status. When she came back, she explained there was still a small payment outstanding. I was unaware, nobody had informed me and so I offered to pay the balance immediately. Unfortunately the system was down and Sue couldn’t take my payment. She told me someone would call me back later …
“OK that’s fine”, I replied “but can you tell tell me what date mum will be cremated so I can inform family and friends?”
“Yes, it’s today” came Sue’s reply.
I was lost for words, Sue was very apologetic. Everything was ‘crazy’, she said.
As if having a cremation-only wasn’t sad enough, it felt like we had disrespected mum even further by missing the time of her funeral. Sue couldn’t tell me if the cremation had already taken place, just that it was ‘some time today’. We couldn’t even remotely send our love and thoughts, couldn’t pay our final respects, couldn’t have a two-minute silence from our distant, isolated homes.
I had to explain to family and friends that we had all missed mum’s cremation. I don’t blame Sue, I don’t blame her employer and I don’t blame the government, but I do feel heartbroken. This was a nightmare scenario that wasn’t even imaginable pre-Corona, and it certainly wasn’t what mum deserved.
We are now firmly focussed on planning mum’s remembrance ceremony sometime in the future (pencilled in for September) and making it the best event we can possibly muster. We will never forget mum and we will make sure we give her the send off she richly deserves as soon as we possibly can. This pandemic will end, life will eventually return to some kind of normality and we will remember mum, but for today, the day of her cremation, there is nothing at all that we can do.
I miss you mum, we all miss you, and tonight I’m going to raise a glass of your favourite wine in your honour, it’s the least and the most I can do.
Mum and I, meeting properly for the first time, 1965