It was a tragedy. A devoted sister was not able to be with her brother when he died and she herself died after trying to bury him. This is not one of the many sad stories we have been hearing from the onslaught of Covid-19, but it is the theme of a popular ancient Greek play called Antigone written by Sophocles some 2,500 years ago. Its significance for today is that it focuses an issue that has perplexed and motivated women and men since people have walked the earth. It is an issue that every culture has surrounded with its distinctive rites and ceremonies: if these rites are not carried out then those responsible for them are frequently left to struggle with a deep, primal unease from which they may seek to be released. I am referring to the need for people to say goodbye to their dying and departed loved ones both at their bedside and at their graveside. Coronavirus has frequently prevented this.
Antigone is the devoted sister. She approaches Creon, ruler of Thebes, asking permission to bury her brother Polynices who was killed fighting for the throne of Thebes which Creon now occupied. Creon refuses Antigone’s request ordering that Polynices, whom he regarded as a traitor, be left unburied on the battlefield, prey to wild animals. To refuse burial rites and ceremonies to the departed was regarded as a terrible punishment and went against the will of the gods: it also left mortals uneasy and fearful. The distraught Antigone disobeys Creon and privately administers burial rites by sprinkling earth over her brother’s body. Antigone is discovered and condemned to death for disobeying the ruler.
Although the rites and ceremonies surrounding dying and burial vary from age to age and from culture to culture, their importance remains undiminished. What was important for Antigone all that time ago is important for us today. We live in an age where death is relegated to the edge of our consciousness: caring for the dying and departed, which was once a community activity, has been handed over to hospitals, social workers and the funeral industry. Nevertheless, end of life rituals are ignored at the cost of our spiritual and mental well-being. In addition, Covid deaths are not only personal tragedies, but, they are national tragedies, impacting the soul of the nation. The nation also needs to grieve and remember.
It has been heart-rending to hear of close friends and relatives being prevented from being with their loved ones about to depart from this life. To hold their hand, reminisce over times past and say thank you and farewell help everybody to move forwards in their journey. Both the dying and the bereaved benefit. Of course, there are times, such as sudden death or not being able to get to a dying relative in time, when it is not possible to say farewell. There are occasions when the dying do not want to be surrounded by others, but prefer to die alone. Although such instances can be very hard, the bereaved often accept, in time, that despite their wishes, it simply was not possible to be at their loved one’s side. However, being prevented from being there when it is possible, is a cruel blow. The thought of losing somebody special is hard enough, but being prevented by Covid from being with them makes it so much harder.
In a similar way, the funeral ceremony and ritual are equally important. Christian funerals are opportunities to be thankful for and remember the life of the departed, to say a final farewell to the body through whom we have known the person and to commit the departed into the hands of a loving and forgiving God. There are also times when the nation needs to grieve and remember. The tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which was established in Westminster Abbey at the end of the first world war, is an example of the nation recognising the need for a dignified burial of the departed. The tomb is still regarded with great respect because those who lost relatives whose bodies could not be found or identified can live with the hope that the soldier honoured by the nation may be theirs. Another example of national grieving and remembering is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which ensures that the dead of the two world wars are properly honoured by burial in a dignified way and provides a place for the bereaved to visit their departed loved ones.
The bereaved generally have a strong sense of how a funeral and burial/cremation should be conducted and where the remains are finally to be laid to rest. Throughout my ministry I have had conversations with people who are troubled because they have not been part of these rituals or do not have specific places to which they can go to remember much loved, departed relatives and friends. On one of my visits to a partner diocese in Zimbabwe which was going through great struggles with the government, I witnessed the turmoil of an Anglican community which was not allowed to bury a community leader alongside his friends and relatives in the graveyard surrounding the church where he had worshipped for most of his life. It is important for the bereaved to be part of a ritual in which they say their goodbyes to the departed and to see them buried or cremated with all the dignity that a human being deserves. How terrifying it must have been for 13 year old Ismail Mohammed Abduwahab who, at the end of March, died of Covid in a south London hospital without any close relatives with him. How harrowing it must have been for his close relatives who could not say their final farewells to their young son and brother either in hospital or at his graveside because they were self-isolating.
All these are situations imposed upon us by Covid. Many victims die in hospital and care homes separated from close friends and relatives. It is clear that they do not die alone. Health and care workers or chaplains sit beside them and frequently hold their hand. We hear of grieving relatives speaking to them via FaceTime. But, despite the love and care selflessly provided by those with them at their end, it is their nearest and dearest that they need – and their nearest and dearest need them. Covid’s cruel grip is active in death as well as in life.
It is important to recognise the impact upon the personal, community and national psyche when people are prevented from performing ceremonies and rituals which are part of humanity’s DNA. The powerful impulses which made Antigone risk and lose her life to perform the burial rites for her brother are as powerful today as they have always been. The nation recognised the importance of these impulses when it supported the burial of the Unknown Warrior and the establishment of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. When restrictions are lifted and we can associate with each other more naturally and easily, it will be time for communities, in particular faith communities, to think creatively of ways the bereaved can be given space and support to complete their journey of grieving. It will also be time for the nation to devise imaginative ways which will acknowledge grief and embody hope to remember this dreadful pestilence which afflicts us all.
Image 1 taken from a performance of Antigone at the Barbican by Jan Versweyveld