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Help after Horror



As I write, the death-toll stands at seventeen, but it’s sure to climb much higher. How much higher no-one can be certain, but one thing is sure: the Grenfell Tower Fire is the worst disaster to hit the United Kingdom for many years. In the face of such suffering and loss of life, it’s natural that people should seek both to praise and to blame. They want to know why it happened and blame those who were responsible.

And they want to praise those who helped when disaster struck. Three important groups of professionals are always involved when a tragedy like this occurs, but only two of them receive widespread attention in the media. Those two are the emergency services who attend the scene and the medical staff who treat the injured. Both play vital roles and are delivering essential public services. They save lives, treat injuries, provide care during the months and years of recovery that follow.

But who are the third group of professionals? They don’t save lives or treat the injured, but they do heal minds and perform an essential public service. I’m talking about those in the funeral profession who will now be working to receive and prepare the dead for burial. Funeral directors and funeral workers won’t be praised widely in the media, but they are the third plank of society’s support in the aftermath of tragedy and disaster. They have to face some horrific injuries and experience some horrific sights, particularly in the wake of a disaster like the Grenfell Tower Fire.

By doing this, they help some of the psychological burden from the shoulders of family and friends. To lose a son or daughter, father or mother, husband or wife, sister or brother in such circumstances is bad enough, but it would be worse to have to retrieve their body and prepare it for burial. Grief often strikes as numbness and shock. People often cannot think or plan ahead. They feel unable to make decisions or are terrified that they will make the wrong ones. That is why the funeral profession exists: it is there to provide skills and expertise that no-one could be expected to acquire in the course of everyday life.

It’s also there to provide emotional support and a patch of peace and gentleness amid what might otherwise seem a cruel and chaotic world. After the ugliness, horror and randomness of death, a funeral is a chance for relatives and friends to say goodbye to their loved one in a calm and considered way. Rituals are the opposite of randomness: they take place at a planned time and place, and are conducted in a planned way. They’re a kind of physical music, rhythmic and balanced, which is why it’s appropriate that real music is so often used during rituals.

Death is like the sound of smashing glass or the crash of a falling building. It’s ugly, jagged and unorganized. Music is the opposite and so is ritual. They are organized, calm and nourishing to the soul. The funeral profession understands this. When grieving friends and relatives attend the funerals of those who have been lost in the Grenfell Tower Fire, they will be performing rituals and listening to music that re-introduces structure and meaning into the howling chaos that life seems to have become. The fire brigade and medical profession won’t be there. Their essential work is done elsewhere and a third group of professionals will be providing help after horror.

National Federation of Funeral Directors