Tilburg University Magazine spontaniteit van het kleine

Dr. Martin Hoondert researches goodbye rituals during the coronavirus crisis

The spontaneity of ‘more modest rituals’

Science Works 5 min. Sara Terburg

‘What effect do the changes in and restrictions on goodbye rituals have on how people process the loss of a loved one in the long term?’ Dr. Martin Hoondert is Associate Professor of Music, Religion and Ritual at the School of Humanities and Digital Sciences. He is researching the effects of the coronavirus crisis on rituals surrounding funerals. “We are in the unique position of being able to carry out research in the middle of a disaster: the coronavirus pandemic.”

Martin Hoondert

Experiences with the first coronavirus wave in March, April and May 2020

Hoondert is carrying out this study in cooperation with the Funerary Academy. This is a platform, set up in 2013, on which scientists and those working in the ‘goodbye sector’ can share an academic interest in death, remembrance, and funeral culture. Hoondert has been a member of the Funerary Academy’s steering group for two years. “The entire ‘goodbye process’ is represented in this academy: care for the vulnerable elderly, counseling in the event of illness leading to death, and grieving. It is a group of committed people with a great deal of knowledge.” Research into the effects of COVID-19 on goodbye rituals is in the preliminary phase. “We are currently collecting stories from those in the funeral business, focusing primarily on their experiences during the first coronavirus wave in March, April and May 2020.”

We use rituals to show who we are

Cultural values and dealing with death

Since 2011, Martin Hoondert has worked full-time at Tilburg University, where he also studied and obtained his PhD. From 2007 to 2011, he occupied an endowed chair. His fascination for goodbye rituals arose in this period. “I took two study programs: musicology and theology, specializing in rituals. As an endowed professor, I carried out research into the relationship between music and religion, with the requiem, or mass for the dead, as the main theme. I ascertained that many contemporary composers compose a requiem. They do so not for the Catholic Church, the cradle from which requiems sprang, but for theatres and concert halls.” He interviewed composers and discovered that they used their compositions to make a statement about death. “There is therefore a link between a musical ritual and the acceptance of death, or dealing with it. Generally, researching rituals gives us a better understanding of the cultural values that are important to us. We use rituals to express our identity, to show who we are, and what we find important.” Understanding culture is one of the research themes of the School of Humanities and Digital Sciences. One of the aspects Hoondert is focusing on is how cremation rituals have developed in the last century.

Almost everything is different from how it was before COVID-19

In his current study, he is looking at how COVID-19 is impacting the funeral business. Various parties, including funeral directors, ritual guides or leaders, farewell photographers, and bereavement counselors, are providing input. Coronavirus has greatly changed how we experience rituals. Hoondert summarizes: “Many people follow a goodbye ceremony online − a totally different experience than actually being present. Fewer people are allowed to attend funerals; in some periods as few as 30. The bereaved are ‘disconnecting’ ceremonies from the cremation or burial. Rituals are changing and disappearing (temporarily or otherwise), and new ones arising.” One of the driving forces in his ongoing study into cremation rituals is the question: are we doing the right thing and do the rituals help us through the mourning process? “The coronavirus crisis simply raises more questions: how, for example, do the changes and restrictions affect how people process the loss of a loved one in the long term?”  

We live in a bizarre world

Changing goodbye rituals affect the bereaved, but they also affect the people who work in the funeral business. “Because more people died during the first wave than normal, the cold rooms of funeral homes were full. Companies had to set up temporary cold storage facilities on their sites. This had a real impact on crematorium employees.” An internal video made by the Dela funeral organization, which Hoondert was permitted to see in the framework of his study, revealed these effects. “The situation and what they experienced in March, April, and May made a deep impression on the employees; they were shocked. They still cannot believe how high the work pressure was and that they cremated so many bodies. I can identify with that shock; I am still stunned when I walk round the supermarket with a mask on, surrounded by others wearing masks. We live in a bizarre world.”

A live stream or guard of honor

Another aspect that struck him is that some changes were already taking place but that they have now accelerated and are being introduced en masse. “We are all working more from home and online, and that applies to goodbyes due to death, too. Facilitating a live stream has become quite normal. A ritual that I find particularly beautiful is, for example, a guard of honor formed by friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, because they are not allowed to attend the cremation. Guards of honor are not new, but have become more common due to the pandemic. I have heard from grief counsellors that some bereaved people missed having a group of friends at the funeral with whom to look back at the life of the deceased person. Numbers were limited and the friends in question could not be present.”

Big funerals making way for less organized rituals

New rituals

New rituals are arising, as well. “One undertaker I interviewed had a small moveable structure made in which the deceased could lie on a bier. This meant that the family could receive visitors who wanted to take their leave of the deceased in their own back garden.” Drive-through condolence sessions have not been very successful as there is little follow-up. He calls the spontaneity of more modest rituals a ‘nice development’. “Rigidly-styled, grand funerals are making way for small-scale, less organized rituals in which the bereaved are less apprehensive about giving a eulogy.” Hoondert thinks that smaller goodbye ceremonies could be here to stay. “In recent decades we have grown towards big, compelling farewell events with lots of music, PowerPoint presentations, photographs, and speeches. The funeral business has promoted this, though unintentionally to a certain extent. Perhaps these events have become too big? It is quite possible that the option of keeping things small and intimate will remain. I am not saying that the one is better than the other but I think that it is a good thing to have the choice.”

Eternal grave rest

The coronavirus crisis also has a big influence on the way in which Muslims make their last farewells. “Many Muslims, including those of second and third generations who were born in the Netherlands, are repatriated to the land of their ancestors when they die. Because of coronavirus, however, this is usually no longer feasible. Burial in the Netherlands is possible, of course, but in our country there are no graveyards with a guarantee of eternal grave rest. And this is a requirement of Islam. There are now private initiatives to open Islamic graveyards that can provide this guarantee. Muslim organizations are currently negotiating with municipalities about the requisite land. This is a fascinating development, in my opinion.”

I carry out qualitative research; I have to get close to people to find out what they do and why they do it

Nine gatherings for thirty people

A story that made a profound impression on him was that of the undertaker who organized the funeral of a 28-year-old man. “Since only thirty people were allowed to attend at any one time, she held nine separate ceremonies, each for thirty people from different parts of the deceased’s network. It took her two whole days. I thought that was pretty special.” This is an intriguing example of the types of stories he hopes to receive via the Funerary Academy’s website in the coming months. “We launched a new project during a webinar in mid-November. We challenge undertakers in the field and those who are recently bereaved to share their experiences in this field during the coronavirus crisis. They can do so by means of text, audio and/or video. The form does not matter, as long as we get as much information as possible. Anyone can send in a story.” We will then analyze what we have been sent and draw our conclusions. “If the stories do not provide enough data, I will hold additional interviews. Questionnaires do not provide what I am looking for. I do qualitative research; I have to get close to people to find out what they do and why they do it. I want to know what influences their choices and the hidden values underlying them. To really get to the bottom of these, I have to keep at them.” The changes that have taken permanent root and the rituals that have not succeeded will only be visible once the coronavirus crisis is over.

Do you want to share your experience? Go to the 'Funeraire academie' website (in Dutch)

An undertaker, a crematorium director, a bereavement counselor, a director of a funeral insurer and organizer, and a funeral photographer. On behalf of the Funerary Academy, Hoondert interviewed these five people about their experiences with rituals around funerals during the coronavirus crisis.

Watch the video's (in Dutch)



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Date of publication: 17 December 2020