With human togetherness being at the heart of both weddings and funerals, the way we observe these important rituals has been turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic. Losing a loved one is always a difficult and distressing time. Funerals can provide an occasion for relatives and friends to adjust to the loss, and express their love and respect for the person they have lost. Strict social distancing requirements, however, have changed the way that death is observed, with funerals necessarily being very different occasions from those we are used to. Meanwhile, weddings – usually a joyful opportunity for friends and family to celebrate the love shared between two people – have been banned for over three months.

On Tuesday 23 June, the Prime Minister announced that weddings will be permitted to take place from 4 July, subject to social distancing, for the first time since lockdown began on 23 March. In a similar move, the Welsh Government announced on 22 June that it was “removing limitations on marriage and civil partnership ceremonies taking place, subject to physical distancing requirements”.

Weddings

When lockdown was announced in March, thousands of couples realised that they would need to postpone or cancel their summer weddings. Though the Prime Minister has now given the green light for small weddings to go ahead from early July, these events will necessarily be subject to social distancing, and church leaders may wish to begin considering how this can be achieved.

Places of worship will need to consider their health and safety obligations and undertake a Covid-19 risk assessment. Our e-briefing on reopening churches sets out more detail on this topic.

Churches will need to plan how to seat up to 30 attendees whilst maintaining appropriate social distancing. In his speech, the Prime Minister also reduced the two-metre social distancing rule to “one metre plus”. The new rule means that people should stay two metres away from each other wherever possible but can be one metre away from each other if other protection is in place. This protection includes wearing a face mask or being behind a screen. We await further guidance on what this may mean for weddings, but best practice is likely to be to ensure that everyone attending the service is encouraged and able to remain two metres away from all others not in their immediate household.

Some smaller buildings may not be able to accommodate 30 attendees with social distancing measures in place. Instead, these churches may wish to consider other ways to involve well-wishers who are unable to attend. This may include options such as recording the service or allowing family and friends to attend virtually through an online platform, e.g. Skype. Indeed, churches who can accommodate 30 socially distancing attendees may also wish to offer these options to couples for extra guests, given the cap on numbers.

Public health hygiene should be encouraged, and handwashing facilities will need to be made available in the church building. A thorough cleaning of the venue will also need to be carried out after each service.

Singing is expected to be discouraged due the increased droplet spread that this causes and so it is unlikely that hymns or church bands will be permitted. Recorded music may be suggested as a safer alternative.

Religious leaders will also need to consider how the legalities of the marriage can take place: for example, ensuring that objections to the wedding can still be lodged with social distancing measures in place.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty around how the changes will work in practice – for example, the Prime Minister did not mention civil ceremonies (as the Welsh Government did) and whether the easing of restrictions will apply to other ceremonies, such as baptisms. We expect further clarification and guidance to be made available shortly.

Funerals

Funerals have been able to take place throughout the pandemic, albeit with various restrictions. Government guidance aims to balance the need to prevent the spread of the virus against the wishes of individuals to gather together to mourn. In practice, there are significant differences between how the guidance is being enforced by local councils, but the main points that emerge from the guidance are as follows:

  • The number of mourners should be as low as possible so that a distance of at least two metres can be maintained between individuals attending the funeral. We await guidance on whether the new “one-metre-plus” rule will change this;
  • Other than the Funeral Director, Chapel Attendant and funeral staff, only members of the person’s household and close family members should attend. There are exceptions, however, which allow close friends to attend where close family or members of the person’s household cannot attend, and where the bereaved has requested the attendance of a particular celebrant;
  • When travelling to and from the funeral gathering, mourners should follow current advice on social distancing;
  • Mourners who are self-isolating due to a person in their household showing symptoms of Covid-19 can attend, and measures should be put in place to minimise any risk of transmission;
  • Mourners who are shielding or who are clinically vulnerable can also attend, and again, measures should be put in place to reduce risk of transmission; and
  • Any mourner who is showing symptoms of Covid-19 should not attend the funeral.

As with weddings, church leaders will need to consider their health and safety obligations and undertake a Covid-19 risk assessment.  Steps that churches and other venue managers should take to reduce the risk of the transmission of Covid-19 include:

  • Setting caps on numbers permitted to attend the funeral, taking into account the size of the venue;
  • Ensuring that handwashing facilities, including hand sanitiser, are available and clearly signposted;
  • Cleaning and disinfecting the area where a service has taken place, particularly regarding frequently touched objects and surfaces;
  • Opening windows and doors to increase ventilation rates; and
  • Considering how to manage the influx of groups of people in and out of venues to minimise overlap.

Where appropriate, virtual attendance should also be made possible, especially for mourners who are shielding or are extremely clinically vulnerable. It may also be worth bearing in mind that mourners may wish to hold a deferred celebration at a later date after the funeral once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

Further information

For more information on the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on weddings and funerals, please contact Tim Coolican in our Regulatory team and Edwina Turner in our Charities team.