Covid-19: government amends funeral law

by Rosie Dawson, 23 March 2020

Religious organisations have welcomed the government’s decision to amend its coronavirus emergency legislation after Muslim and Jewish groups argued that it would infringe religious freedom and compromise their beliefs.

During its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday, the government agreed to amend legislation that would have given local authorities powers to conduct cremations without the consent of families of the deceased. Muslim and Jewish practice is to bury rather than cremate their dead.

Naseem Shah, the Labour MP for Bradford West, whose amendment to the legislation had attracted widespread cross-party support, said on Twitter: “I’m so relieved that the government has listened to what we’ve said about religious burials for Muslim and Jewish people and have brought forward an amendment to address our concerns.”

The amended legislation now stipulates that local authorities must dispose of bodies in accordance with the wishes of the deceased and in a way which respects their religion or beliefs, if known.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews also issued a statement welcoming the decision. Its president, Marie van der Zyl, said: “We would like to extend our deep and sincere thanks to the government for working with us to amend this legislation to protect the final wishes and religious freedoms of the deceased. There could be few things more sacred.”

Funeral director Jennifer Uzzell, who is also a PhD student at Durham University’s Centre for Death and Life Studies, says burial is important for many people beyond Muslim and Jewish communities. “Although no mainstream Christian denomination is opposed to the practice of cremation some individual Christians, particularly but not exclusively Catholics, believe that burning the body is inconsistent with a belief in the resurrection of the body,” she said.

“Many Pagans too will want to insist on burials – often on environmental grounds, and some people simply have a terror at the very idea of cremation.”

Funerals are the only public gathering now allowed in the UK following Boris Johnson’s address to the country last night. All religious and secular bodies responsible for them are having to grapple with the practicalities posed by the pandemic.

Dr Shazad Amin, chief executive of Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend) told the Religion Media Centre that adjustments would have to be made to Islamic burial practices such as the burial of bodies in simple white shrouds. “Bodies may need to be sealed and family members may not always be able to be present at the cemetery due to self-isolation. However in extreme circumstances such as this epidemic, there is scope for Islamic law and guidance to be flexible in such matters.”

The Church of England updated its national guidelines following the prime minister’s announcement to say that “funerals can still go ahead but within strict limits, with only the closest family in attendance and essential physical distancing measures in place.”

More than 10,000 non-religious funerals are conducted every year. Humanists UK has issued new guidelines recommending the livestreaming of funerals, delayed memorials, and new gestures to replace hugging. Isabel Russo, head of ceremonies, for Humanists UK, said there was a need for clarity and consistency across the board.

“We are urging the government to issue specific advice for the funeral industry to bring clarity across the sector. Government guidelines on, for example, the maximum number of people who can physically attend funerals would help the industry to avoid putting people at risk.”

Deborah Smith of the National Association of Funeral Directors said her members were using their discretion in advising families how to adapt to changing circumstances.

“They are advising that only family members who live together should travel by limousine, for example, and in some cases it is possible to hold services outside.

“There is no national template for what should happen. While it might appear easier to adopt a consistent approach, there are local factors to be taken into account such as the size of chapels in our crematoria and the other facilities they provide.”

Ms Uzzell told the Religion Media Centre that 3 to 5 per cent of cremations were “direct cremations” where the body is taken to the crematorium and cremated without a service. The ashes are returned to the family who may scatter or inter them at a later date, and hold a memorial rather than a funeral service

“In the absence of clear government directives, several crematoria are insisting on direct cremation,” she said. “I would expect many more to follow suit in the next fortnight.”

(photo: MTSOfan)