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Bishop Martin Seeley is 'numbed' by the death toll wrought by Covid-19

Death is all around, and I think we are in danger of no longer noticing, or maybe no longer feeling.

We are becoming numb to death.

Each day the numbers of those who have died are reported, and we notice perhaps that they are going up or down – up and up as I write this. But the numbers themselves don’t really register and the fact that there have been 95,000 Covid-19 deaths and more than 100,000 ‘excess deaths’ is – well, numbing.

Bishop Martin Seeley
Bishop Martin Seeley

Until we realise that in World War Two the total civilian casualty deaths in this country for the whole war was 70,000. And until one of those 100,000 is someone we love. Then no death is an ‘excess death’.

Last week I participated in the funeral in the cathedral at Bury St Edmunds of one of my predecessors as Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Bishop John Waine.

Bishop John, who was 90, had served as bishop here from 1978 to 1986, then became Bishop of Chelmsford in Essex and retired back to Suffolk in 1996.

Bishop John Waine
Bishop John Waine

He was, in fact, the third former Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich to die during the pandemic, with Bishop John Dennis dying in April a month after his wife died, both of Covid-19, and Bishop Richard Lewis died during September.

I got to know John Waine when I moved here – my opening service, which he attended, was on his 85th birthday. He was active right until he fell ill before Christmas and died having contracted Covid-19.

Bishop John’s funeral was, of course ,a Covid-restricted simple service, with just 30 family members and friends. But it gave the opportunity, as good funeral services do, for the reality of what has happened to sink in deeper.

Though Covid-restricted, the service had dignity and beauty, with the music and prayers, words of remembering and celebration, and the deep sense of being held by the God who bears us through these times and holds for us the reality of life beyond death.

This service, like other funeral services, enabled us to engage with our mixture of grief and gratitude, to process a little more, and importantly to entrust John and ourselves to God – to make the next step in the journey.

So many people across Suffolk are bearing the loss of loved ones during this pandemic, many dying from Covid-19.

Funeral services are vital for those who are left to take that next step in grief and loss, and to experience that sense of being held and carried through this time by one who is both in and beyond time.

The death of a loved one is hard to bear; it is profoundly painful, and we experience all sorts of feelings – including guilt, depression, anger –and we need help moving through these and carrying that sense of loss, which, of course, never really goes away.

So maybe it is not surprising that we are feeling numbed by the overwhelming numbers of people who have died.

Just as we need personal processes, including good funeral services, to help us face death and see beyond it, including to life beyond death, so we are going to need ways to work through the huge collective grief and anguish as we emerge from the pandemic and the numbness wears off.

As communities, a nation and indeed, as citizens of a global human network, we will need to express our collective grief in ways that do not lead to more harm. The time will come when we will take what has happened, acknowledge the death that we together have experienced, and pray for the healing that will help us move forward.

- Bishop Martin Seeley is the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich and is writing a weekly article for readers while church services are disrupted by the pandemic

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