The Church of England's Head of Life Events, Sandra Millar, joins independent funeral director and past SAIF President Jim Auld to discuss the role of church-led funerals during the pandemic and beyond.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] Welcome to the Partnership Podcast. This time, we're going to hear from two perspectives on the past year's changes in the funeral profession more broadly. I'll be speaking to Sandra Miller, head of life events at the Church of England, about Covid-19, funerals and how independents and the church can work together. We'll also hear from Jim Auld, past SAIF president, about an independent's perspective on that relationship. Church clergy are deeply involved in many funerals and their ties to local communities reflect independent funeral directors. Today we'll look at how both can work together for the benefit of those communities. So, Sandra, Jim, welcome to you both, are you well?
Sandra Miller [00:00:52] Yes, good, thank you.
Jim Old [00:00:54] Very well. Apart from, we might need to start this again, I've got a cockerel outside my window that is crowing like anything.
Sandra Miller [00:01:03] We've all got used to these different things, haven't we? It's all become all a bit more human, these things. You know, babies and kittens make appearances, you know.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:12] Right, Jim, is it sorted?
Jim Auld [00:01:15] That is Fred fed. I thought it'll be easier to work in Kilcreggan because it's quieter round there, and of course Fred saw me coming in, and I didn't feed him when I came in and he comes to the window looking.
Sandra Miller [00:01:28] Bless.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:30] OK, Sandra, perhaps we could just start for the benefit of our listeners, if you wouldn't mind just briefly explaining what your role is with the Church of England.
Sandra Miller [00:01:38] Yes, excellent. I've done particular role for just over eight years now. But behind this role, I'm also an ordained Priest in the Church of England. So I do from time to time, still take funeral services. And over 20 years I've taken, of course, many, many different funeral services as well. But my my particular role now is what I call head of life events. And life events is the way in which the Church of England is there for people in the three big moments in life, which is when a child arrives, when a marriage begins and what we're thinking about, which is when a life ends. And what I try to do really is to help resource, equip, inspire churches to good practise so that those who come to us have the best possible experience they can. And I'm also responsible for some of our communication direct with the public and also for good relationships with other professionals in the in the funeral world.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:31] Excellent. That's very helpful. Right, I can tell we're going to have a good conversation today. Brilliant. Right. Sandra, we've heard from funeral directors about the difficulties of the past year, but also about the opportunities that they found to give families unique experiences. From the church's perspective, what challenges and opportunities have you seen during the pandemic?
Sandra Miller [00:02:53] I think the challenge, as for everyone involved in funerals, was initially around the fact that we've not been able to be with people in the way we would want to be with them. You know, the limited numbers and sometimes not being able to offer the kind of service, the kind of support that we would be used to offering. So that was a big challenge. I think we shouldn't also forget the huge challenge for everybody emotionally because we were dealing with people in a very vulnerable and challenged state often, who are encountering things that no one's encountered before. But also that challenge that we all face of adapting to new things that we haven't done before.
Sandra Miller [00:03:28] I think, interestingly, one of the opportunities that's emerged, which we might find surprising, is a kind of recovery of the funeral as a place of grief rather than a place of celebration. Instead of having to pretend, if you like, that we've got to be really joyful through this whole service and say "what a good chap Bill was. He was fantastic." They can actually say, "do you know what, we are really, really sad. It's just us here and we can acknowledge it." And also the other things slowly we've been realising is the incredible way in which streaming has enabled people to access funerals differently.
Malcolm Flanders [00:04:05] Excellent. Thank you. So, Jim, I know you've seen a lot of adapting from the Church throughout the pandemic?
Jim Auld [00:04:10] I think, at the start of the pandemic, funerals changed beyond all recognition. They became small family events. Our local crematorium, for example, at the start only allowed eight. Some crematoriums, maybe allowed six. We are still at 18 at our local crematorium. So I think a lot of folk were happy to deal with the familiar of a minister as opposed to a celebrant which was there to celebrate and recognise a life. People that were thinking, "well, we actually know the person that's died far more than anyone that's going to take this service, so let's go down the trusted route of a minister, in an environment that we're comfortable with.".
Jim Auld [00:04:53] And as Sandra said, there's been this thing for the last many years that we celebrate every life, but every death isn't necessarily a cause for celebration. When your late 30s and you've got two young children and you've fought a two year battle with cancer and you've left a dad to bring up two children under the age of 10, that's not always a cause for celebration. And I think folk have been entraped in "we want to celebrate their life." By all means, remember the life and recognise the significant parts, but it's also right that we grieve. And I think there was more of a chance to grieve.
Jim Auld [00:05:28] A lot of people at the start of the pandemic were saying, "oh, we're going to have memorial services." Very few of my families have ever said that. But this was perhaps pushed by some of the maybe the bigger conglomerates of funeral directors, were trying to push memorial services. And I felt, not a single family came to me and said, "we're going to have something when this is all over." But the church, I think, has absolutely stood up to the plate with this, of all denominations, really.
Malcolm Flanders [00:05:55] Thank you, Jim. So, Sandra, back to you. Do you think the future looks different now due to Covid-19? Will any of the rules that were brought in around funerals and weddings stick, do you think will change future behaviour?
Sandra Miller [00:06:08] I think it will be interesting to see whether that shift we've both talked about to recover in grief, as part of the process, stays with us. I think because the public conversation, if I can call it that, media awareness around grief has got much louder. We may see some of that change stay with us. That people will realise that actually this is a much broader, wider experience with ripples that touches lots and lots of lives.
Sandra Miller [00:06:37] I think the other thing that might stay with us, I'm pretty sure it will, is this awareness of how we help other people who can't get there, to access a funeral. I think one of the great opportunities will be care homes, where, I know often, someone dies and it's called a home for a reason because someone's lived there for anything between a few weeks to a few years before they die. And residents and staff can't get, always, to mark the passing of that person who may have become their friend, and they knew every day, saw them at breakfast or whatever. That we could work quite well with the technologies, to enable people to be present at a funeral even when they can't physically travel to be there.
Malcolm Flanders [00:07:17] Jim, anything to add on that point in terms of change or what might stick?
Jim Auld [00:07:21] A thing that a lot of folk have said to me since last year is, a bit like Prince Philip, "I didn't want any fuss. I wanted a small funeral," or, "my father wanted a small funeral," "my wife wanted a small funeral, and basically they've got what they wanted. It's not what we wanted." And a lot of families have said to me afterwards, "when my time comes, I want exactly the same for me. I don't want a big funeral. It was far more intimate, allowed us to grieve better, because we were amongst family and friends, so we didn't have to worry about keeping a stiff upper lip." And I think the communication side of things is certainly helping.
Jim Auld [00:08:00] Unfortunately, our local crematorium doesn't have a webcasting facility. We've got a company that comes in and actually films the funeral for us at a cost, and within a couple of hours send out an editable funeral service. And that suits very well for people, particularly perhaps overseas, and it's also a memento.
Jim Auld [00:08:21] One thing that we're finding in a lot of people has been holding a particular route for the cortege to pass. And that way people can stand and show their respects. We went via one of our care homes other week there. The lady was enormously popular and the home actually said, "do you think you could drive the hearse by the home, so that the staff, ok the residents couldn't get out to the streets, but as many of the staff, whether on duty or not, could be there." And there must be about 30 staff stood outside the care home at a social distance. And it was lovely.
Malcolm Flanders [00:08:52] Okay, Jim, thank you. Sandra, if we step back from the pandemic then, for the moment, from the church's perspective, how do you find the working relationship with funeral directors? Do you work well together? And is there any scope to work more closely? And does it vary from place to place?
Sandra Miller [00:09:10] Well, the last part is the easiest one to answer, because it absolutely varies from place to place, because as I often say, when I'm doing training with clergy, is there's a spectrum of behaviour; vicars who are really brilliant at what they do and there are funeral director who are really brilliant at what they do. Equally, there are vicars who are not very good and, you know, surprise, surprise there are funeral director who are not very good. And in between there's most of us trying to do the best that we can. And one of the things we talk about a lot is finding our common ground, which is serving the bereaved in our community and respecting one another's role in that.
Sandra Miller [00:09:45] So, yeah, absolutely. The space to improve that, space to value one another, to work together, to do just that, to serve bereaved families. And relationship is everything on this, so we encourage clergy a lot to make good relationship with funeral directors. Sometimes we say, especially like you mentioned earlier, there's hard funerals; the funeral of a child, a funeral of a young mum. There's only one other person who knows, apart of the family itself, who've been through that, leading that occasion; the funeral directors and the ministers, support one another and be kind to each other. And I also say to churches pray for your funeral directors, and I also encourage them to take cake round as well in my training, and be nice.
Malcolm Flanders [00:10:28] Thank you, Sandra. And so Jim, it's funny, a theme of teamwork there comes to mind in making these arrangements. So what about your perspective, on how you work day to day with the church?
Jim Auld [00:10:39] I have a very good relationship with all the clergy in our local area, whether it be Church of Scotland, United Reformed, the Scottish Episcopal Church, Roman Catholic Church, a great rapport, Baptists. And I think it's because we work as a team, and I always say to families, "we're all part of small cogs in a giant wheel and for it all to work perfectly, all the cogs need to run together." Like when we're planning a day for the funeral, we need to make sure that the minister's available, not just the cemetery, the crematorium. So I would never book a funeral without having clearance from the clergy, unless I particularly knew their diary. And there's a couple of ministers that I know their diary fairly well.
Jim Auld [00:11:23] And it's also providing local knowledge to them about someone that they're maybe not familiar with, a young death. During Covid, early on, there was a lady passed away, and I said to the minister, I said, "look, you really need to go and see this man, he's absolutely broken. His wife has died. They've got a young family. You don't need to go in the house, they've got a big garden, just sit in the garden and talk about it." And they did that. So we really have to be thankful for working with ministers and priests. And I know that churches pray for me, because I'm told. So, they obviously think I need their prayers.
Malcolm Flanders [00:12:04] I'm glad to hear it, Jim. Good. So, Sandra, Jim referred to community there, and we know funeral directors, and clearly the church, have extensive ties to the local community. Do you think there's any opportunity to work together on aftercare for bereaved people or end of life care?
Sandra Miller [00:12:21] I absolutely think it's opportunity for us to work together. One of the great things that happened just very recently was lots of people working together with the day that was initiated through Marie Curie, the National Day of Reflection. But lots of us got involved. But that really showed with a simple, clear message, us all working together could really have an impact in the community. I absolutely agree with Jim that families have not really come forward in the numbers that some seem to think they would, asking for private and individual memorial services of any kind. Partly because you don't need a memorial until you can gather with your friends and family.
Sandra Miller [00:12:59] What I do think there's a need for and we could definitely work together on, is local spaces and places where people could do their remembering. So that might be a funeral director and church working together, on a particular day, to have a space where people tie ribbons to railings, and the funeral directors tell families that's available, and the church make sure the funeral directors know it's going to happen. You know, those kind of moments. Or like the care home again. I definitely think there's more for us to do working alongside one another to serve the families in the community.
Malcolm Flanders [00:13:30] Thank you, Sandra. So, Jim, is there any area where you think the funeral director's well placed to support a family to involve the church, when that is what they want? Are you able to have those kind of conversations sometimes?
Jim Auld [00:13:43] Yes, all the time. Because sometimes you maybe deal with a family, and their natural thing is, "well, we'll have a celebrant. We don't really go to church." And I always assure families that the Church is there to welcome them and support them. My question about the service is usually, "do you have a church connection?" That opens up that, and they say no and a very definite, "no, we want a humanist." That's fair enough. But you very often folk say, "well, we used to go to church, but we moved to this area and we haven't really joined the church here, but we're not against it" and I say, "well, we can facilitate that. And you live in such and such a parish, the minister is so and so, and they're absolutley brilliant." And maybe you'll see one of them and if you know if they're Rangers football fan, for example, and say, "well, you know, Christine's a great fan at Rangers, so she'll look after you and everything." So, it's just finding a minister that's got a wee bit of a common bond with folk.
Jim Auld [00:14:41] I just think there's such an important place yet for the Church. I know when my own parents died, I couldn't have imagined not having a service. And my parents certainly wouldn't have imagined. I think a minister gives hopes and reassurance.
Malcolm Flanders [00:14:57] Thank you, Jim. Right, we've come to the last question, and rather than an open ending, I'm going to put this to both of you; to what extent after the pandemic do you think the church is in a better place?
Sandra Miller [00:15:09] Well, very great minds are pondering this question, I can assure you. Interestingly, we did a piece of major market research, I know lots of people have been doing that, in January, looking at the impact of the pandemic of bereavement, death, and just as many of the things Jim just said about where people feel connected to the church. I really liked that question. Everyone can access it, but people don't realise, they self exclude. But it turns out that actually those previous connections are really important.
Sandra Miller [00:15:36] So I think this conversation in the public domain, that's more about death and funerals, if we take the moment to be part of that conversation, then actually that is a good place for us to be with people, and bring that kind of hope that we offer to people. And it's not always just the hope in eternal life. It's actually the hope of a community locally, that is there for you. The hope that comes because there's a space, and you can go and sit there and so we might talk to you. That for me, around funerals, puts us in quite a good place. The negative for me at the moment, one of the worrying things, and I know we've run out of time now, but I'd love to have another conversation with you all about direct cremation. You'd be really interested in our research on it as well.
Malcolm Flanders [00:16:18] Certainly. Well, I will take you up on that, Sandra, thank you. Jim, final word on that last question?
Jim Auld [00:16:23] I think services and perhaps Sunday worship has changed as well, Sandra, you know, I found it very easy, the second lockdown has allowed our church to perhaps meet by Zoom, and that's been great. And we've actually had residents from one of the local care homes joining. So I think the church is probably out there more than it's been for the last 20 years. I feel as though I've been greatly supported by our clergy that I've dealt with in the last year. And I think that has made my job so much easier. They've been more available. Their diaries have been a bit freer. It's actually has been back like the old days of what it was 20 years ago. It's nice to be back to some more traditional.
Malcolm Flanders [00:17:09] OK, well, on that positive note, can I thank you both for this afternoon's conversation. That was brilliant. Thank you.
Sandra Miller [00:17:15] Thank you.
Jim Auld [00:17:16] Thanks.
Malcolm Flanders [00:17:22] Thank you for listening to another Partnership Podcast. We will continue to bring you new perspectives throughout the year and aim to continue speaking to faith groups about their role in the funeral profession. Our full archive of episodes is available at goldencharter.buzzsprout.com, and you can contact me at email@example.com, to feedback, propose a topic, or get involved yourself. Thanks again and I'll talk to you again on the Partnership Podcast.