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Lindy McDowell

The cruellest aspect of Covid-19: funerals like we never imagined

Lindy McDowell


Parish priest Gerard Alwill performs the final committal during the burial of Fermanagh’s first Covid-19 victim, Anne Best (72), at St Ninnidh’s cemetery in Derrylin on Saturday

Parish priest Gerard Alwill performs the final committal during the burial of Fermanagh’s first Covid-19 victim, Anne Best (72), at St Ninnidh’s cemetery in Derrylin on Saturday

Tom and Anne Best’s wedding

Tom and Anne Best’s wedding


Parish priest Gerard Alwill performs the final committal during the burial of Fermanagh’s first Covid-19 victim, Anne Best (72), at St Ninnidh’s cemetery in Derrylin on Saturday

It is one of those classic pictures that say a thousand words. In this instance a thousand words of heartbreak. A priest leans over the coffin already lowered into the grave administering the last earthly blessing upon a woman dearly loved by her husband and by all who knew her.

Alongside - but not standing too close - there is a gravedigger, a funeral director.

And a way off in the distance a small clutch of friends.

In a fresh Fermanagh day in spring the sky is sheathed with cloud but still bursting blue here and there.

March, a month for renewal, reawakening, hope, is the setting for a scene that is at once surreal - but now, tragically, all too real.

And all too heart-wrenching.

For what this picture doesn't show, but what we now also know is that as Fr Gerard Alwill was laying to rest Anne Best (72) in St Ninnidh's cemetery in Derrylin, Mrs Best's beloved husband Tom, the husband who adored her, the man who had been by her side for 51 years of happily married life, was unable to be there to say his last farewell.

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In the garden of their home, not that far away from that sad graveyard scene, Mr Best was pacing up and down.

He was there with his Anne, not at her graveside but in his heart - separated by the cruellest of circumstances.

Mrs Anne Best who died last week, was Fermanagh's first death from Covid-19. Her husband has been self-isolating in case he might pass on the virus to others. Strict rules now enforce the numbers who may now attend funerals.

These are the factual details that lie behind that bleak picture.

What it barely conveys is the awful human loss.

Speaking of his grief, Mr Best paid the most beautiful tribute to his Anne.

"You might wonder why I wanted to cook her breakfast and do things for her," he told reporter Rodney Edwards. "It was simple, I loved her. I loved her."

He had made that great sacrifice not to attend her interment because, he explained, he didn't want to take the risk of spreading the virus to anyone else in Derrylin.

He hadn't even been able to be with his wife in the hospital when she had died.

It is not hard to imagine his distress at that - or to imagine how it would feel if it came to your own door.

In this part of the world the rituals of passing are imbued with the warmth and solace of tradition, love and affection. Of the family and the friends who descend upon the home of the deceased as soon as the news spreads bringing comfort, soft words, tears, traybakes, practical help and kindly support.

There are the endless cups of tea often brewed up in those big metal urns borrowed from the local church or sports club and served up in china cups and saucers which never otherwise see the light of day.

There are the sandwiches made, more daintily than usual, packaged in Tupperware and ferried round by the neighbours.

And, of course, the traditional biscuits and traybakes.

Was there ever a wake that didn't have traybakes?

In the kitchen where these are being plated up, there are growing mountains of other offerings. Walls of bags of sugar. Countless packets of teabags.

It is all too much provision even for the largest of gatherings.

But it's an expression of people wanting to help and to show support for the bereaved in their hardest hour.

And we have all been there, sometimes as the neighbourly mourners, sometimes ourselves as the sorely grieving family.

It is the greatest of comforts. That big turn-out at the wake and the fitting send-off at the funeral.

You know you are not alone in your sorrow and it touches your heart to see that the person you loved so dearly yourself was loved by so many others too.

And that all those people wanted you to know that.

The cruellest aspect of Covid-19 is that, not only does it takes lives, but that those left behind are now being denied even a final precious goodbye.

There is not even a last chance to hold the hand of an adored partner of a lifetime, a parent, someone you loved so very much - and to say over and over again to them some gentle, loving words to soothe them in their final moments. Even the minister, priest or clergy can't be there to pray with them, reassure and console them and you.

As coronavirus scythes its trail of pain across the country the necessary rules to fight it constrict our way of life - and of death.

There is no funeral for now. Not a funeral as we know it, anyway.

This is the new reality.

That picture from Derrylin doesn't tell just one tragic story - it is the distressing template for what now lies ahead for other families here too.

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