Fr Tom Cox.

Local priests back calls for increase to 10-person funeral attendance limit

Two local priests have backed calls by the Catholic Archbishops of Ireland for the current 10-person limit on attending funerals to be increased in an effort to avoid crowds congregating in cemeteries after funeral services have ended.

“The problems are not inside the churches, they are outside” said Fr. Sean Neylon, Parish Priest of the rural parish of Taughmaconnell, between Athlone and Ballinasloe, who says it is “very evident” that more and more people are congregating in cemeteries around the country in recent weeks with no social distancing.

“We would be well able to accommodate an extra 15 people in St. Ronan’s Church and adhere to all the strict public health measures that are currently in place, but we cannot control what happens once people leave the church” said Fr Neylon, who says he would support the calls for an increase in the numbers allowed to attend funerals.

Some 15 funerals have taken place in Taughmaconnell since January, and Fr Neylon says his bereaved parishioners have been “exemplary” in the way they have adhered to public health guidelines. However, he says the “natural instinct” of Irish people is to “extend the hand of friendship and the heart of love” to grieving families and this has caused difficulties in his parish, and in many other parishes, as friends and neighbours grapple with how best to offer their sympathies.

While he agrees that people who line the route of funerals and attend at the cemetery are “motivated by love”, Fr Neylon says it is an issue which will have to be addressed if we are to keep Covid numbers down.

Fr Sean Neylon.

“At this stage we are going to have no Easter ceremonies, and I think it will be at least September before we will see a real relaxation of restrictions, so everyone will have to play their part and remain very vigilant over the coming months,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the sprawling rural parish of Clonmacnoise, which borders Westmeath and Roscommon, Administrator Fr. Tom Cox says that allowing up to 25 people to attend funeral services would be “far more acceptable and realistic” than limiting the numbers to 10. “There are very often more than 10 people in the close family circle of a bereaved person, and how do you choose who goes to the funeral and who doesn’t?” he asks.

Although there have only been five funerals in Clonmacnoise parish since the beginning of the year, Fr Tom says it is a simple fact that adherence to public health guidelines has “unravelled quite a bit outside churches” right across the country after funeral ceremonies have ended.

“It is definitely a huge problem,” he admits “and one of the difficulties I find it that there is a variation in practices and policies in different parishes.” He cites the example of how his own Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise does not allow funeral services to be relayed to parishioners outside churches via a speaker system, while other dioceses do allow this practice.

“In general, I would support the call of the Archbishops to increase the number of people allowed to attend funerals from 10 to 25 as this would help to ease the burden of grief for the immediate family, but allied to this, there also needs to be guidance on what should happen once a funeral service has ended,” says Fr Cox.

A joint statement issued by the four Catholic Archbishops of Ireland last week referred to the “untold grief” being felt by bereaved families as a result of the limits on funeral attendance, and expressed “disappointment” that the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin has not yet responded to any of the issues raised by the Archbishops at a meeting on February 19 last.

While they acknowledged that “strong restrictions are necessary in times of grave threat to public health” the Archbishops statement added that the restrictions needed to be “proportionate” and should take into account people’s “mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”

In calling for an increase in the numbers permitted to attend funerals, the Archbishops said the current restrictions “place immense burdens on grieving families, compounding the pain of their loss” and they also noted that in Northern Ireland the numbers had not been reduced below 25 people at any stage over the past year.

The Archbishops also called for a return to public worship in the run up to Easter, saying it would give “a sense of hope and consolation” and for people of faith it is “fundamental to their identity and to their spiritual lives.”

On Monday of this week, the Bishop of Killaloe, Fintan Monahan, made an earnest public appeal for people to find “alternative ways” to offer condolences to bereaved families for the foreseeable future until a sufficient number of people have been vaccinated.

“Perhaps a prayer, a card, a phone call, a letter, a text, a message on social media, lighting a candle at home or in your local church, would be a safer way to offer consolation with a view to offering personal support in the near future,” said Bishop Monahan.