COVID-19 SPECIAL

Changing face of funerals amid Covid-19 circuit breaker rules

Due to circuit breaker measures, Singapore Casket limits access to its funeral parlours to only 10 people who have to practise safe distancing (above), and does temperature screening (left), among other precautions. PHOTOS: SINGAPORE CASKET, TIMOTHY
Due to circuit breaker measures, Singapore Casket limits access to its funeral parlours to only 10 people who have to practise safe distancing, and does temperature screening (above), among other precautions. PHOTOS: SINGAPORE CASKET, TIMOTHY FOO
Due to circuit breaker measures, Singapore Casket limits access to its funeral parlours to only 10 people who have to practise safe distancing (above), and does temperature screening (left), among other precautions. PHOTOS: SINGAPORE CASKET, TIMOTHY
Due to circuit breaker measures, Singapore Casket limits access to its funeral parlours to only 10 people who have to practise safe distancing (above), and does temperature screening, among other precautions. PHOTOS: SINGAPORE CASKET, TIMOTHY FOO

As the elderly woman grieved for her husband, she muttered under her breath: "Why don't we have fu qi (good fortune)? Why does my husband have to die at the wrong time?"

Her husband, Mr Ng Buck Soon, had died of cancer at the age of 84 on April 16, nine days into Singapore's circuit breaker period that put in place stricter measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.

He had wanted to leave this earthly life with some degree of pomp and circumstance: by having a sizeable crowd send him off on his final journey with the banging of drums and with live music from a band.

Instead, three of his grandchildren had to turn back and walk home shortly after the funeral foot procession began, since no more than 10 persons were allowed at the crematorium due to stringent circuit breaker measures.

"My daughter asked me why she could send grandpa only halfway on his journey," said Madam Tan Kin Choo, 54, who is Mr Ng's daughter-in-law. "But we do understand and appreciate the need for the measures."

On March 24, the Ministry of Health said that only family members should attend funerals, as far as possible, and that 10 or fewer people should gather at wakes at any one point in time. This was part of other measures to curb transmissions, including having places of worship subject to group sizes of 10 persons or fewer at any one time should there be a need for private worship and essential rites.

Like Singapore, countries worldwide are coming up with new ways of dealing with death as countries struggle to cope with the coronavirus. In France, for example, children have been banned from the bedsides of their dying parents for fear of bringing the virus into nursing homes.

Every month, an average of 1,700 Singapore residents die.

Funeral directors and end-of-life professionals interviewed by The Sunday Times said they are witnessing family members who have trouble processing their grief or finding closure as the rituals of death are being shortened or done away with during this period.

Some call it disenfranchised grief, which happens when losses are not socially recognised.

 
 

Singapore Casket has made the funeral arrangements for some 70 people since the circuit breaker period started three weeks ago.

One third of these bereaved families chose not to have a funeral wake while the rest shortened the wakes to two or three days.

A spokesman for Assisi Hospice said the family members of its patients still choose to have wakes but have reduced their duration to a maximum of three days.

Mr Ang Ziqian, deputy chairman of the Ang Chin Moh Group that provides funeral services, said a bereaved family might experience more grief when extended family members, relatives and friends are unable to join them in the process of closure.

Some Muslims, who bury their dead as soon as they can instead of having wakes, are also feeling the difference. Ms Nurus Sa'eedah, 24, a guest relations executive, said abiding by the measures was painful for some of her family members when they mourned her grandmother who died on April 8. "We could select only 10 people to be present at the burial so mostly we chose the male family members who could help carry the coffin," she said.

She added that for the two to three days after a death, relatives and friends will usually visit the homes to offer comfort and support. "But this time no one could come. I told my family to keep praying for strength instead."

Ms Ang Jolie Mei, funeral director at The Life Celebrant, said unresolved grief is manifested through feelings of guilt when people cannot fulfil the wishes of their loved ones or when they experience regret at not being able to see their loved ones before they die or give them a final send-off. "I saw a family member apologise to his dad during the cremation for not giving him the funeral that he wanted," said Ms Ang.

 
 
 

Rituals that offer comfort during bereavement are also being reduced. "For chanting... they just chant the 'essential' (portions)," said Mr Jeffrey Lee, funeral director at Embrace Funeral Services.

Some people feel strongly about paying their last respects.

A 31-year-old assistant manager who wanted to be known only as Mr Oh said it was hard to control the crowd at his late mother's wake because he did not want to offend older relatives who visited. His mother died on March 30. "We tried to take precautions and placed only four to five chairs per table but by the end of the day, there would be 10 to 12 chairs there, so we added five more tables on the third day to space people out," he said.

Mr Timothy Liu, chief executive of Dover Park Hospice, said some family members are affected by the limits on wake attendance.

"Culturally, if there are more people sending off, it means that the person had a good life and was well liked by many," he said.

Funeral firms try to ease the grief of the living by livestreaming the funeral and cremation service.

Not all bereaved persons, however, struggle with the Covid-19 situation and measures. Civil servant Timothy Foo, 47, whose older brother died on April 14, did not find the 10-people limit inconvenient.

"We didn't need to have many people coming to play mahjong, gamble or eat melon seeds," he said. "Having a smaller group was meaningful to us as we had a chance to talk to most of the people who came and together share our grief and memories of my brother."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline 'Changing face of funerals'. Print Edition | Subscribe