Opinion: The inhuman restrictions around funerals are taking away our right to grieve.

For many of us, a funeral service is a fundamental part of saying goodbye to someone we have lost. 

Inextricably tied to the grief process, they allow us the opportunity to celebrate a life, share memories, express our condolences, release our emotions and sorrow, to grieve and to mourn and to comfort others as they do the same.

Funerals signify the close of a life; the final step in farewelling someone who has been significant to us.

This month, in the space of 10 days, I lost two people very close to me to cancer: my aunt Rosemary, 57, and my dear friend Lauren, 40. And with their losses I found myself facing the process of grappling with this grief in a very different way, in the COVID-19 world.

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With the changes that society has faced due to the pandemic, came changes to the way we hold funerals, and with that, the way we process grief.

To say these changes are unfair would be an understatement. I would go as far as to say they are inhuman, harsh and at times, traumatic.

A trip to a hardware store to get DIY supplies is considered essential by our government, and a funeral is not. They are severely restricted, significantly more so than this type of comparatively meaningless excursion.

The restrictions aren’t just apparent in the 10 mourners in attendance rule, they riddle the entire funeral process, as I discovered when helping organise my Aunt’s. 

Only one person was allowed to meet with the funeral director to choose the service structure, casket and flowers, and a video or phone call is in place of meeting the celebrant in person who will lead the service.

At the actual funeral, only 10 people were allowed to attend. 10 people dotted around a large room, separated from each other, no food or drinks to follow, no wake, no gatherings afterwards. For attendees of number 11 onwards, live-streaming was arranged for them to watch from their homes. 

Shona, around 10 years ago, with her late Aunt. Image: Supplied.

Instead of an overfilled room flooded with emotion, as it would have been at any other time, the restrictions meant we had to hold a service that was not what our family had wanted, not the way in which we would have chosen to exercise our right to grieve, to say goodbye and to support one another. But this is what we had to do, so we did. 

The atmosphere of course was still sad, but it was also often stale, uncomfortable and lacking in an intensity of emotion - because how can we possibly let these emotions out when the rules in place restrict them?

In removing the closeness, comfort and contact, it's about as unconducive to grieving as you can get, and the results of this are significant.

As I left my Aunt’s funeral there was a sense of surrealness, like it didn’t even happen. I wasn’t overcome with the exhaustion I often felt when leaving a loved one’s service and for a while I couldn’t work out why. She was like my second mother.

But then I realised it was because it wasn’t a fitting funeral, it wasn’t what she deserved, and it wasn’t what we deserved or needed to properly say goodbye. 

So, four days after my aunt’s funeral when my good friend Lauren passed away, I wasn’t sure what I even hoped her family would do for her. 

For an absolutely courageous woman who touched so many people’s lives, I knew in normal circumstances that her funeral could fill an arena. 

Shona and close friend Lauren, who passed away after her battle with breast cancer. Image: Supplied.

I also knew that I wouldn’t be one of the ten attending a funeral if they chose to have one now and although I understood and respected why, I knew how hard it would be for me, as well as the others in my position.

But instead Lauren’s family have chosen to wait until the COVID-19 situation has improved and restrictions have eased so they can celebrate her life in a fitting way.

And while I am in one way relieved, I am also apprehensive and annoyed that their right to a natural process of grieving has been taken away and now they have to wait, indefinitely. 

While there is no right or wrong way to do things, especially in this perpetual state of unknown we find ourselves in, what is clear is that neither the options around my aunt’s or Lauren’s funeral were what they deserved, or what the people that loved them deserved.

And yes, I understand why the restrictions are in place. But I do at times question the logic in it as the massive contradictions have become very apparent.

Death happens once. You cannot delay it, you cannot postpone it or reschedule it - there is no choice in the matter. It is not a wedding or a birthday. Mourning and grieving through a funeral is essential, it is part of life and this can't be made up for at a later date. It doesn’t work like that. 

State governments do allow, in some cases, for exemptions to the 10 person limit for funerals. Visit your state government's website for more information.

Shona Hendley, mother of cats, goats and humans is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education. She is an animal lover and advocate, with a morbid fascination for true crime and horror movies. You can follow her on Instagram.

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Feature image: supplied/Shoney Hendley