I attended a funeral on Wednesday for a dear family friend, someone I’ve known my whole life. He didn’t die of Covid; rather, of old age and ill health and a broken heart. He did die alone, though, except for nursing staff, his friends and family unable to visit him in his final weeks. Still, we gathered to celebrate his life, one of colour and flamboyance and dancing to his own beat, unapologetic to the end.
In the UK we’re still under some restrictions due to the Covid outbreak (and I think they’ll increase again, sadly – we are not out of this yet). Therefore, only a dozen mourners were allowed at the funeral. His neighbours, though, lined the street as the hearse passed, and there was love aplenty to lift him to the next realm. When we reached the chapel, there were only a dozen chairs scattered around the large space, instead of the pews and crowds and whispered hum of a usual funeral. We each took a chair, pulling them into small family groups of two or three, all of us nodding and blowing kisses across the room. But there was no touching. No hugging or comforting or patting of arms. No shaking of hands or kissed cheeks. Afterwards, we sat in separate chairs in my parents’ back garden and toasted our lost friend, telling stories of his life as we ate from our own serving bowls, the food prepared using gloves and tongs and tiny dishes, rather than the usual free-for-all of big plates and togetherness.
It was very strange.
I couldn’t put my finger on what about it, exactly, was strange, until later in the day. And I realised it felt as though everyone was mad at me. There was no change in conversation, in how we talked and laughed and related to each other. But without the hugs and closeness and touches of everyday life, I felt, somehow, on the outer. And it made me realise not only how much the world has changed due to Covid, but also how important touch is as part of our human existence.
In ancient times, when humans lived in tribes, the community was how we protected ourselves, strength in numbers. To be exiled from the tribe was basically a death sentence. In medieval times, when prisoners were sent on the long journey to London and the tower, no one would talk to them or interact with them in any way, in case they be seen as sympathetic to their crimes. This is, in fact, the origin of the phrase ‘Sent to Coventry’, as Coventry was an important stop on the way to London. Closeness and acceptance within our own community is a sign that we’re part of something, that we’re included, not shunned. Yet now we cross the street to avoid getting too close to people, stand in the driveway and shout, rather than having close conversations. We have to do these things, of course, but I wonder what impact it is having on us as a society.
We communicate so many things through touch. The handshake, the hug, the pat on the back. The kiss on the cheek, on the hand, or the lips. Holding hands. Linking arms. The Maori hongi and the Inuit kunik, rubbing noses to express affection. We affirm our relationships, whether business or friendship or family or lover, through touch, and it is how we experience much of the world. So, as a species, to have touch taken away from us is a very strange thing.
I’ve been fortunate during this crisis to have both my husband and daughter at home with me. Hugs are not in short supply in our house. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be cut off, to be isolating alone, with no human touch at all. And I wonder at the long-term fallout of this, of the mental impact of going without such an important sense for so long. Even before Covid there was growing distance within our communities, people not knowing their neighbours, much of our lives lived online. Once we return to whatever normal will be when this is over, I wonder what will happen – whether we’ll continue to keep our distance, or perhaps make more of an effort to seek out human contact, rather than shut ourselves away.
I hope the latter is the case.
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