Funeral experiences during COVID-19
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Funeral experiences during COVID-19

A blog post written by Deb Rawlings, Senior Lecturer, Palliative Care, Flinders University and Dr Lauren Miller-Lewis, Lecturer - Positive Psychology, CQUniversity

Rituals in life are often performed with the purpose of marking milestones such as weddings, christenings, and graduations. [1] Funerals are one such ritual, marking the ultimate rite of passage, bringing people together to mourn, to remember, to celebrate the end of a person’s life, and to start the healing process.

During 2020 we hosted a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on death and dying (Dying2Learn) [2]. In week 1 the content focused on how today’s society engages with death, and the aim of this study was to investigate participant's responses to an online activity that asked for reflections on funerals and memorials during the time of COVID. We received ethics approval for the use of de-identified MOOC data. We received 593 responses to the activity, with 204 (34.2%) explicitly describing funerals during COVID-19. Following analysis of the data we identified nine key themes with both positive and negative responses to the changes in funerals mentioned by participants.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen changes in the way in which funerals can be conducted, and our participants reported that in-person attendance had been allowed but in smaller groups, that some people were unable to attend at all (e.g., due to border closures), that some funerals were postponed, and for others new mourning rituals were created. Of those who mentioned covid-era funerals the emotional impact of these changes included:

Negative effects – for example, limited attendance numbers; no touching; technology glitches; impersonal voyeurism; unable to say goodbye in traditional / ritualised way

“I had to view a replay on a usb of his service. It was horrible, surreal.”

“….an informal service held at his farm with just close family with him. He was able to go for one last ride around his farm on the back of his ute and was then farewelled by his community who parked along the road to his property and farewelled him as he left the farm for the last time.”

Positive effects – for example, being able to attend the funeral virtually when they would have missed out otherwise because of number restrictions or travel barriers or distance; the increased intimacy of a smaller funeral.

“We placed a rose in turn for each family member, including those who were live streaming, saying their name as we placed in on the coffin….… It was a lovely funeral, intimate and personal.”

“..the funeral was broadcast live to my relatives in Ireland which was great for them to be able to participate in the ceremony”

Everyone has had to be responsive to changes made because of COVID-19, and that includes the way in which we farewell our dead and the way in which we grieve. This can be very emotionally difficult. However, our respondents have also described some positives that have come out of the changes, and some resilient ways in which they have coped and adapted to these challenging new circumstances. COVID-19 has seen funeral directors modify funeral processes such as accelerating the use of technology, and some of these changes may be here to stay. The long-term effect of changes to funerals and grieving may have important implications for bereavement.

Useful links
Dying2Learn - What next?
Funerals and COVID-19


  1. Imber-Black E. Rituals in the Time of COVID-19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit. Fam Process. 2020 Sep;59(3):912-921. doi: 10.1111/famp.12581. Epub 2020 Aug 1.
  2. Tieman J, Miller-Lewis L, Rawlings D. Sanderson C. The contribution of a MOOC to community discussions around death and dying. BMC Palliat Care. 2018 Feb; 17, 31.

Profile picture of Deb Rawlings


Deb Rawlings, Senior Lecturer, Palliative Care, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University



Profile picture of Lauren Miller-Lewis

Dr Lauren Miller-Lewis, Lecturer - Positive Psychology, College of Psychology, CQUniversity




This work will be presented as an e-poster at the Oceanic Palliative Care Conference 2021 titled 'Reflections from participants in a Massive-Open-Online-Course about death'.


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The views and opinions expressed in Palliative Perspectives are those of the authors and are not necessarily supported by CareSearch, Flinders University and/or the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care.