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Community / ‘Compassion still has a place’ – virtual funeral services give folk chance to pay tribute to loved ones during pandemic

Rev Neil Brice has been conducting virtual services for those who can't attend in person.

LOSING a loved one is hard enough as it is, but when there are strict restrictions imposed on attending funeral services as a result of social distancing, it can be especially difficult.

But some people in Shetland who can’t attend in person are receiving comfort in taking part in virtual funeral services for their loved ones through their mobile phones or computers.

On Monday local reverend Neil Brice led a funeral service with nearly 60 people gathered on video chat platform Zoom while their loved one’s cremation was taking place on the mainland.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, no-one was able to attend the cremation service in person, meaning that Brice’s online session gave family and friends an important chance to honour their loved one together.

Brice also brought a virtual twist to a Shetland graveside burial of someone else yesterday (Thursday) by streaming it to those unable to attend.

Speaking about Monday’s cremation service, which saw Brice broadcast from the Gilbert Bain Hospital sanctuary, the reverend said: “We shared prayers and some poems and there was a slideshow of pictures of the person’s life, with some music.

“It was amazingly successful. I think that the family and the friends that gathered did feel as though they had marked something, which was very good.

“It was lovely as people gathered on Zoom to hear grandchildren say, because I’m able to hear the conversations going on before we mute the mics, ‘hello grandma, hello grandpa’ and the grandparents saying ‘hello, how are you, I see you’ve got your favourite t-shirt on’. It was very heartening to hear all that.”

Brice, who is also NHS Shetland’s spiritual care lead, said that only ten people at the moment can go to funerals in Shetland, with social distancing guidelines needing to be adhered to as far as possible for the close family who attend.

Referring to yesterday’s graveside burial, Brice said he was moved by seeing the faces on his mobile phone screen during the ceremony of those unable to attend in person.

“I was so very conscious of the small little pictures of the people on the screen, that only I could see, how involved they were in what we were doing around the grave,” he said.

“You suddenly realise you’re feeling something that you weren’t expecting to feel, and I felt very moved when I was holding the camera there, seeing these little pictures.”

Each flower thrown into the grave was named after a person watching online, and with their name read out, they were able to feel part of the ceremony.

“There was a connection made between the people watching it, and the people who were there. I think that that made a huge difference. They weren’t just watching, they were actually taking part.”

One thing that could pose a problem is connectivity – particularly in a place like Shetland where phone or broadband coverage may not be perfect.

“When we did the Zoom thing, I sat in the hospital sanctuary at that time, and I locked the door with a sign saying please do not disturb,” Brice explained.

“But I was very conscious of the fact that the WiFi signal sometimes drops out, and so I had to have a back-up plan just in case.”

Thankfully for Brice, who is part of the local Episcopal Church, the WiFi held out and the service was uninterrupted.

The virtual gatherings also mean that people from around the country can take part in services hosted in Shetland.

Brice also paid tribute to Shetland’s funeral directors Goudies, who are “working ever so well in the circumstances with what they have to deal with”.

“Compassion and understanding is clearly present in all that we do, which is heartening really, because while on the one hand you need to be aware of the guidelines and follow them as best as you can, compassion still has a place in safety, and whatever can be done to bring that compassion in, is being done,” he said.

Hillswick-based funeral celebrant Tom Morton, meanwhile, has created a website providing information for anyone who may want to organise their own virtual memorials.

The site includes sample material, links to other websites and updates on relevant funeral rules during the coronavirus pandemic.

Goudies said on Thursday that it has to make changes to the way it works to make “our families, the public and ourselves safe”.

The funeral directors said in a Facebook post that it is working with families over the phone to make all funeral arrangements, while it is collaborating closely with the registrar office and bereavement services to “continue to provide a caring and compassionate service during these difficult times”.

Shetland Bereavement Support Service is currently closed to one-to-one support, with all enquiries asked to go through email to sbss@shetland.org.