Affording Dignity in Death: The Unsung Heroes of COVID-19

I work for SCM four days a week as the Church and Community Fundraiser. I love getting to talk to so many different people and hearing their stories about how the movement has impacted their life. However, working part-time also leaves me with one day a week to do something else! I like to keep things varied so I do several different things to keep me entertained, and one of these things is helping my friend with his funeral business. That might sound like a bit of a strange side occupation, but having worked as both a hospital chaplain and in Mortuary and Bereavement care I have always found this type of work interesting, and full of honour and respect. It is reassuring to me that care for our loved ones doesn’t finish with death.

About 6 years ago I spent some time as a student chaplain at a hospital in Cambridgeshire. Early on in my placement I was doing the rounds on a ward with the lead chaplain. There was one group who were visiting their family member who was likely going to die that day, and even though I’d only been on my placement a couple of weeks the lead chaplain asked me to go and speak to them whilst he spoke with the Matron. I remember standing outside the door ready to knock - it was one of those moments that was only a split second but it felt like a lifetime! I prayed before going into the room, ‘God, I haven’t got a clue what to say. I’m just going to take the step in here and hope that you are present in this time.’

The reality is that I didn’t say much at all. I walked in, and there were four people stood around the bed with one sat next to the patient, whose name was Noah*. I spent 45 minutes in there as the family recalled stories of their dear Noah, laughing, smiling and crying, often all at the same time. The family weren’t religious, but they asked me to pray. I think it was a mixture of their expectations of my role, and that in these moments where the fragility of life is laid bare the very essence of our humanity connects deeply with God as our comforter even when we can’t articulate it.

After I prayed it felt like the right time to leave. I left feeling ambivalent - our time had been wonderful, and it had been a real privilege to be part of the family’s process of coming to terms with the death of their loved one. I hoped that the time I had spent with them also enabled them to see God in a moment where most would least expect it. However, I also had this nagging thought that though I found it a truly moving experience, what if it had only hindered them in their mourning?

About 3 weeks later I found myself in a rare but incredibly privileged position. Noah's family, on their way to the bereavement centre to pick up the medical certificate, took a detour to find me in the chaplaincy office. They shared with me that Noah had died a little while after my visit, and they recalled how special the time was that we had shared together in his last hours. To hear this from the family made my heart sing, and I thanked God for responding to my call in that moment before I stepped into his room.

Chaplains, Funeral Directors and their staff, and Mortuary and Bereavement care staff are some of those that are unseen on the frontline of this pandemic. They are striving to keep the dignity of the deceased no matter the circumstances of their death. They are working with a vast number of people who will have died much earlier than expected, working around the clock to officiate funerals where very few families will be able to attend, while also dealing with the pastoral needs of the families of the deceased. Along with a whole host of other key workers, these are my unsung heroes of this pandemic. Please join me in praying for them:

Sovereign God,

In this moment of tragedy, thank you that there are those to provide dignity in all moments of life and death.

In this moment of isolation, thank you that there are those to provide comfort when families are mourning.

In this moment of exhaustion, please provide all our key workers with God-given strength to continue through each day.

In this moment of uncertainty, please provide an unwavering sense of hope that sees us all through the tough moments as they come and go.

In this moment of stillness, let us remember all those unsung heroes of this crisis, and let their spirits know of our appreciation.


*Name has been changed.