Grieving families turning to online memorials as Covid hits funerals - but tributes avoid painful references to Coronavirus, research finds


Grieving families hit by the Covid-19 pandemic are increasingly turning to online memorials to honour their loved ones - but avoid painful references to coronavirus and death in their tributes, new research has found.

School of English

Birmingham City University

Dr Mark McGlashan, Senior Lecturer in English Language at Birmingham City University, has been examining the use of language in online memorial boards created to pay tribute to those who have died during the pandemic. His research finds that online memorials aid the grieving process by giving people space to reframe and reaffirm the lives of the deceased rather than focussing on the conditions of their death.

With restrictions on traditional funerals in place there has been an upsurge in online memorials as people bid to honour those who have passed away and publically celebrate their lives while respecting guidelines.

Findings from the project are being shared as the UK prepares to mark one year since the first national lockdown was called (March 23).

Dr McGlashan’s research examined 5026 public online memorials published on the Remember Me memorial website to uncover how people have been commemorating their friends and family amidst the pandemic. This is believed to be the largest collection of bereavement discourse texts ever compiled for academic study.

The study revealed that grievers avoided directly referencing coronavirus or Covid-19 in their messages, avoided negative words and used metaphors that reframed or sanitised death during the grieving process. Rather, memorials focussed on reaffirming life, love, and important family relationships of the deceased.

Dr Mark McGlashan, said: “Bereavement is a deeply complex emotion, especially during a pandemic in which many of us have been unable to say goodbye to our loved ones or grieve with our families.

Common language used to help sanitise and ease discussion of death fall into some key categories:

  • Portraying death as a journey: Metaphors suggesting the dead are on another part of their life journey – grievers hope to meet the deceased again in future. Previous research has shown this helps mitigate social taboos relating to death.
  • Death is rest: The process of dying is represented as a coming to peace and denies any taboos relating to death (such as any pain or discomfort experienced during life).
  • Death is departure: Phrases portraying the dead as travellers who are on the same journey as the living but at a different stage which will reunite them with those they left behind.
  • The absence of Covid: Only very few memorials referenced Covid-19, again demonstrating the limit of taboos.
  • Always in our heart: The heart becomes a symbolic vessel where the living ‘hold’ or ‘contain’ the deceased (‘you will always have a place in our hearts), and also a place that has been voided by the loss (‘you have left a big hole in our hearts’).
  • The relationship: The bereaved celebrated their relationship to those who had passed away as a way of publically sharing their close connection at a time when collective gatherings are restricted.

The study was conducted at a time when the UK had reported 41,969 Covid-19 deaths, with the memorials covered representing nearly 12 per cent of all reported deaths.

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