The Grim Conveyor Belt: A mortuary morker’s perspective on death during the Covid-19 pandemic

By
Catrina Denton
BSc Anthropology


During the Covid-19 pandemic, I worked as a mortuary assistant. One day, when a long queue of funeral director’s private ambulances formed to move deceased individuals to their funerals, one funeral director expressed their worry that those passing the mortuary would be filled with dread at the sight of the ‘grim conveyor belt’. This struck me as an excellent metaphor, one that encapsulates the tragedy and dreadful experience of death juxtaposed with the rational, systematic process of managing it. Covid-19 thrusts this rationalised, unnerving way of thinking about death from the periphery into the public sphere through various means, altering how we think about death for a lifetime.

Before the pandemic and working in the mortuary, death was always a mystified, spiritually charged and epic phenomena to me. Discussions about what happens after death were concerned with the soul; attempts to fathom the void or apprehensions of the afterlife. Despite the prevalence of these spiritually charged discussions about death, the rationalisation and medicalisation of death has been occurring since 1800 (Walter 1994). This transition includes the de-personification of death (for example, in the UK, death is rarely imagined as the grim reaper), the move of the death bed from home to hospital and the increased influence of doctors and coroners as opposed to priests over the deceased (Walter 1994). However, in my experience, there seems to be an almost tangible line of how one thinks about death. On one side death is a tragedy, an unknown, a mysterious phenomenon; on the other, an everyday event with an intricate, rational and practical system to manage it. I crossed this line when I began work at the mortuary. 

Understandably, the rational side of this view of death can be distressing. The routine and practical nature of how death is dealt with contradicts our first lessons of death and experiences of loss. For many, death induces sadness and acts as milestones in the lives of the living. The banal realities of a job where you encounter the dead everyday contradicts the personal experience of death.

Temporary mortuary constructed in Bristol

This line between the clinical, rational nature of death management, and the deeply painful experience of loss takes a new shape during a time of mass-death, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. One significant change is that the clinical realities of death have been thrust into the public sphere. One of Bristol city council’s responses to the pandemic in the city was the building of a temporary resting place in a built-up residential area of south Bristol. The temporary resting place (TRP) was made up of refrigerated shipping containers filled with metal racking, concealed by a large white marquee. Its purpose was made clear to residents with articles such as Postans’ (2020) in the Bristol Post. I would argue the TRP served as a symbol of the tragic deaths caused by the virus. In addition to this melancholic symbolism, the clinical appearance appeared to perplex the city. For example, a socially distanced blessing was organised in response to its opening, where various faith leaders and a humanist speaker came to speak in the TRP. This was documented in a Bristol City Council video (2020). Interestingly, a ceremony like this has never been conducted in a mortuary anywhere else in the UK (to the knowledge of the mortuary manager). You could interpret these events as a reaction to the shifting of the line discussed earlier. A rational perception of death moves into the centre of people’s lives through the TRP. Therefore, the blessing can be seen as a means to re-mystify what happens after death for those who have not been exposed to the clinical, practical side of this divide. Perhaps this enables the processing of the grim, detached nature of the systematic dealing of death.

Indeed, the relationship between death and faith is one that has been studied anthropologically from the beginning of the discipline. Malinowski (1948) suggests the apprehension of death is a predominant source of religion. Covid-19, a cause of mass death, appears to have led to an increase in religious thought possibly due to increased meditation on death and dying. For example, the rainbow motif seen throughout the UK as a symbol of support for key workers is also a prominent symbol of hope and connection with God in the Christian faith.  Indeed, the voice of God says, ‘I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth.’ (The Holy Biblbe, Genesis 9:13). Admittedly rainbows are not widely regarded as religious symbols in society. However, the trend of increased religiosity is observed in other data sets and populations. For example, a statistical analysis of language use on the Chinese social media platform Weibo (Li et al. 2020) supports the hypothesis that increased use of religious terminology (such as ‘church’, ‘mosque’ and ‘temple’) correlates with increased reports of mortality related to Covid-19. The correlation between increased visibility of death and increased visibility of religion is further supported by a popular phrase on the Chinese internet during the covid-19 pandemic, ‘God Bless China’. This phrase can be interpreted as religious in terms of its reference to God but can also be seen as an example of civil religion, where the lines between religious belief and patriotism blur (Bellah 1967).

In the vein of nationalism, death tolls and nations have been inextricably linked throughout the pandemic. Again, the juxtaposition between the tragedy of death and the rationalised way of dealing with it comes into play here. For example, perplexingly competitive language of death tolls (most frequently the concept of ‘overtaking’) presents itself in headlines such as ‘Coronavirus: Brazil’s deaths overtake UK’s’ (Euronews 2020). Death, on a government level, is so often understood through empirical data which may feel detached, aloof and sinister when seen by those who have experienced loss. Additionally, news coverage has been linking the pandemic to war. Examples include: ‘US death toll surpasses that of WW1’ (The Telegraph 2020) and ‘Coronavirus: What happens when war is won as UK stands on crossroads as in 1945’ (Mirror 2020) This competitive language about death and reference to war is potentially evoking increased nationalist belief. Deaths from Covid-19 are felt by the nation rather than just the kin of the victims.

A considerable part of how we process and understand death is through the ceremonies held for the deceased. Archaeologist A. Jones (2003: 65) refers to funerals as ‘technologies of remembrance’. In this view, funerals are mechanisms which reshape the identities of the deceased through the disposal of their body. Covid-19 has drastically changed funeral services. For example, the funeral directors I talked to reported less people attending due to lockdown rules. Additionally, the time a funeral took place at was reported to be less within the family’s control to ensure enough funerals were taking place so that mortuary capacity was not becoming overwhelmed. These changes have an emphasis on necessity and practicality. By changing the funeral, you change the means by which the deceased’s identity is reshaped therefore Covid-19 has potentially made an alternative identity for those who died during the pandemic.

Temporary mortuary constructed in Glasgow warehouse

Although many feel distressed in being unable to attend a loved one’s funeral in person, the dramatic effects of Covid-19 on how we live socially has pushed the funeral industry to change. Tony Walter, in an interview for Prospect magazine (Wood 2020), observes that death and funerals are taboo and therefore are relatively conservative in their traditions. However, Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst for change. For example, among many Jewish communities, there is a weeklong period of collective grieving called shiva. Shivas involve, prayer, the sharing of food and garment tearing within the home of the deceased. Social distancing disrupted this practice but offered some positive changes. In West London, a shiva sat for Rabbi Helen Freeman via zoom enabled 200 people to attend, far more than what the capacity of a house enables (Wood 2020). 

Additionally, funerals in the Muslim tradition have been changed by covid-19. Zainab Gulamali, Public Affairs Manager at the Muslim Council of Britain, observes that virtual funerals allow the breaking of traditions. In an interview for Prospect magazine, she observes that women do not go to burials in the Muslim tradition. A virtual burial for a friend’s father was the first time she had ever attended one, the first glimpse into a side of Islam she previously could not participate in (Wood 2020). This is a perspective of death, mourning and tradition changed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has made many people think about and consider death more frequently than they ever did before. The emergence of TRP and persistent news coverage serve as constant reminders of death which have caused ripples throughout public opinion; altering how we see death and thus how we see our countries, our religions and our faiths.

Title image: ‘Dobře tak, že je smrť na světě z knihy’ by Věnceslava Černého (Wikimedia Commons)

  1. Bellah, R. 1967. Civil Religion in America, Daedalus, 96(1), pp.1-21
  2. Bowman, V. 2020. ‘Coronavirus world round-up: US death toll surpasses that of WWI as new infections hit record highs in six states’, The Telegraph [online] [Accessed 23 June 2020].
  3. Bristol City Council. 2020. ‘Mayor’s visit to the temporary place of death’. [online] [Accessed 19 June 2020].
  4. Dellanna, A. 2020. ‘Coronavirus: Brazil’s deaths overtake UK’s’, Euronews [online] [Accessed 23 June 2020].
  5. Jones, A. 2003. Technologies of Remembrance. In: H. Williams, ed. 2003. Archaeologies Of Remembrance. Boston, MA: Springer US.
  6. Li, S., Wang, Y., Xue, J., Zhao, N. and Zhu, T. 2020. The impact of COVID-19 epidemic declaration on psychological consequences: a study on active Weibo usersInternational journal of environmental research and public health, 17(6), p. 2032.
  7. Malinowski, B. 1948. Magic, Science and Religion. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books.
  8. Nelson, N. 2020.  Coronavirus: What happens when war is won as UK stands on crossroads as in 1945, Mirror [online] [Accessed 23 June 2020].
  9. Postans, A. 2020. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees: Council tax relief applications, latest on temporary mortuary and request not to use park benches. The Bristol Post [online] [Accessed 19 June 2020].
  10. The Holy Bible: King James Version.
  11. Walter, T. 1994. The Revival Of Death. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
  12. Wood, P. 2020. Lockdown-era Zoom funerals are upending religious traditions—and they may change the way we grieve forever, Prospect [online] [Accessed 19 June 2020].

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