Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Life, health, death – The Display of Displaced Care: Funerals in Corona Times
Erika Anne Hayfield, Associate Professor, Department of History and Social Science University of the Faroe Islands, Faroe Islands
Overnight on March 16th, 2020, the small, remote island society of the Faroe Islands went into lockdown. The otherwise highly mobile people became confined to their homes, with limited freedom of movement. Some took ill, those vulnerable or potentially exposed to Coronavirus were quarantined, and the remaining population, bar essential front-line workers, were required to interact only with household members.
This tiny island nation is almost literally a mere dot on the map of the North Atlantic. Over time, through coping in place, and with placement, have emerged practices of global navigation, by way of constant physical and virtual interaction . As with many small communities, social life on the islands is characterised by multiple relations. The recurring dealings that people have with one another entail high familiarity, and spatial and social intimacy . In such contexts, people are co-present in each other’s lives, be it in daily life or for significant events.
This article focuses on how Coronavirus lockdown has changed funeral practices. I pay attention to the display of care by others than the immediate next-of-kin of the deceased. My inspiration for this article came during a telephone conversation with a work colleague a few days into lockdown:
Colleague: I really must go. I need to be at an online funeral at 1pm. My brother’s mother-in-law died, and the church is streaming the funeral online due to limitations on social gatherings.
Author: An online funeral? That is very different.
Colleague: I know. It feels bizarre. Only ten people can be present. Many close friends and relatives cannot be there. They had to choose between my brother being there OR the organist. But the worst thing for me is, that I don’t know how I can show them, we are there for them. Normally, one would help with the wake, bake biscuits and by being present. But it is like we are having to learn how to grieve and attend funerals in a new way.
Funerals in the Faroe Islands are often large affairs. Names of deceased Faroe islanders, even those living abroad, are announced on public national radio, along with the time and place of funerals. As such it not uncommon for several hundred people to attend the church service, cemetery, and subsequent wake. This is likely due to the interconnected nature of social relations, which entails that people frequently have substantial networks of friends and family.
Belonging is associated with family connections, and Faroese society is characterised by family-based individualism . As a result, social life involves navigating networks of relations, rather than individual people . If a friend, relative, neighbour or work colleague loses a loved one, care is displayed through physical co-presence. Networks are mobilised and people show they care through gift-giving, baking, attending the funeral, visiting, and generally helping in whichever way they can.
Dense and overlapping connections in small places lead to greater levels of social interdependency, and social intimacy may be conducive of feelings of being under surveillance . However, at the same time social cohesion in such small places can lead to feelings of people caring , which becomes especially manifested in bereavement. Therefore, the display of care is a collective affair, in which even those who do not necessarily know the deceased well attend funerals in an act of support for next-of-kin. Whilst funerals have the function of showing respect for a life lived , the practices of bereavement are also actions of displaying social cohesion, to reaffirm caring relations to the living.
As with people around the globe, the Faroese have found innovative modes of sociality during Corona times. This is frequently by means of the internet, through online socialising, concerts, teaching, beer-tasting to name a few. However, I argue that practices surrounding bereavement are more challenging to navigate. The sacredness of death and intensity of rituals surrounding bereavement leave less scope for opportunities of care. Therefore, unable to display care can lead to feelings of displaced care.
Ungerson  distinguishes between affective relations of care (caring about), and the more practical nature of providing care (caring for). Hence, physical distancing during Corona presents new challenges to find ways to care for in bereavement situations. In her study of long-distance kin-relations, Baldassar  suggests that shared co-presence is constructed in different ways: virtual (online), by proxy (through objects), physically and through imagination. As my colleague articulated, caring and ‘being there’ for others during rituals of grief requires physical or by proxy co-presence (e.g. providing food for the wake). Therefore, funerals are not so readily transferred to other discourses.
Some three weeks later, I was again speaking to my colleague over the phone. I enquired into the funeral; she had spoken of previously:
Colleague: Well Erika, it felt so strange. I sat there at work, with my coffee cup and watched the funeral. At the same time, I was writing text messages to the grandson of the deceased, who was in Corona quarantine. I wanted to comfort him as he was alone.
As it happens, I attended another online funeral since we last spoke. This time though, it was in a small village church, which did not have streaming equipment. Therefore, a villager created an open Facebook group, and another took it upon himself to transmit the funeral online. This was quite different to the first funeral. We were around 170 individuals, logged onto the funeral on Facebook. Some people posted hearts or comforting messages. Some started writing messages to the man streaming the funeral, stating that the sound quality was bad, and could he please adjust the picture. A couple of attendees even wrote they were logging off, because of technical issues. I found myself in a predicament, as it was on Facebook. Should I be writing something? In the church one would have sat in silence.
The interweaving of two discourses, that of traditional funerals and that of Facebook turned out to be a conflicting experience for my colleague. The critical, blunt, and forthright tone on Facebook stands in stark opposition to the funeral ritual. In a display of care though, the funeral attendees, wrote messages of comfort, caring through their virtual co-presence. Yet, the extract further points to the conflict of navigating two discourses at odds with one another. This is especially apparent when the villager streaming the funeral received comments on technical quality
There is a growing body of research that recognises the digitalisation of grief and online platforms for remembering loved ones , . Whilst this has not readily won ground in the Faroe Islands, such online practices have emerged elsewhere over time as funeral rituals are renegotiated. However, the collective display of care in these remote islands does not so smoothly lend itself to being renegotiated overnight. Many innovative solutions have been found to being-together-apart, with various forms of co-presence during Corona times. However, displaying care in the funeral context it would appear, leads to feelings of displaced care. As such, the practice of care is not finding its way to the appropriate situation, as the situatedness of bereavement care is less transferrable to other discourses.
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