'We're working with families who held restricted funerals': Cork women helping honour people who died during pandemic

Most recently, they have been working to meet the demand of families seeking to honour loved ones after being robbed of the opportunity to do so during the height of Covid restrictions.
'We're working with families who held restricted funerals': Cork women helping honour people who died during pandemic

Cork women Dara O’Shea (right) and Louise O’Brien founded the end-of-life event planning company RHEA a year ago following their own encounters with grief. Photo Darragh Kane

CORK families are enlisting the help of Ireland’s only funeral planning organisation in a bid to honour those denied services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cork women Dara O’Shea and Louise O’Brien founded the end-of-life event planning company RHEA a year ago following their own encounters with grief.

The pair work on behalf of clients and families- and in cooperation with funeral directors-to organise everything from the location to the music used in the ceremony.

Most recently, they have been working to meet the demand of families seeking to honour loved ones after being robbed of the opportunity to do so during the height of Covid restrictions.

“I think the wake came as a huge loss to people,” Louise said. “It was something Irish people felt very passionate about. They could drop the shoulders. They could cry and access emotions more easily. 

"It’s so sad to think that people were going to the church and going home without being able to spend time with their family afterwards. That’s not to mention the people who weren’t able to travel home from abroad and had to watch their parent’s funeral on zoom. 

"Now there’s a deserving chance for people to continue revisiting that goodbye.”

She said that memorial events, which were previously restricted to the US, have made their way overseas and are popular among bereaved families.

“We are currently working with people who had restricted funerals,” Louise said. 

“If we look at the start of the pandemic there was an insistence on closed coffins. There was a huge emotional impact on people as a result of all the restrictions. 

"Our view on memorial events is that people deserve to have the chance to revisit what might feel like an incomplete experience. It’s all about acknowledging the emotional permission that might be needed to pursue that as an option.”

She described how memorial events offer closure to families.

“Nobody wants to plan a funeral. You never look forward to planning a memorial but you do like to look back and know that you gave that person the send-off they deserve.”

Louise spoke of how funeral planning can be a very pressurised experience for Irish families.

“The fact that funerals happen so quickly in Ireland is often what removed the opportunity for a family to give their loved one the funeral they deserve,” she said.

“You are talking about people being up all night writing eulogies. They are trying to book hotels. That’s not what a heartbroken person needs to be doing. There are preferences that haven’t been discussed. In Ireland funerals happen so quickly that the planning process brings immense stress with it.”

She highlighted the changes taking place relating to funerals in Ireland.

“Memorials are much more common in the USA. People like to plan something personal even if a normal routine of a funeral still occurs.

“People are a lot more open to giving more consideration around what they really want rather than just having the conventional route of the removal and church. Personal preferences are beginning to come through. You can see how attitudes are changing.”

Meanwhile, Dara outlined the role Covid-19 played in shifting society’s expectations of funerals.

“Covid up-scuttled so many of the expectations and norms we were used to,” Dara said. “We almost have a picture in our heads of what the funeral experience is meant to be and if the outcome doesn’t match this it can cause distress for people. 

"A lot of people have been telling us about the different experiences they had and what they lost on. They will zone in on the piece that felt wrong that felt at odds with their expectations.”

Dara said that memorial events can be very moving. Referring to the recent memorial event of one woman by way of example she said: “They wanted it to be a celebration and present it like she had just walked out of the room. It was interesting to see the different generations and the various stages people were at in their bereavement journey.”

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