A grieving mother said she had “nowhere left to turn” after dozens of possible venues for a funeral service near London refused to let her invite more than 30 mourners, despite England’s coronavirus restrictions being about to change.
Stacey O’Donnell, whose 19-year-old son, Tai O’Donnell, was stabbed to death in his home in Croydon on 3 March, said she was “shattered” by her attempts to find a venue for the service.
She had delayed the funeral until after 17 May, when the government’s limit on mourners is to be lifted allowing any number of people to gather as long as venues can comply with social distancing. She wanted to invite 50-60 guests whose lives “had been touched by Tai”.
But dozens of sites in Croydon and the surrounding area in south London, including those with large indoor and outdoor areas that would make social distancing possible, were restricting mourners to a maximum of 30, with many also limiting the service to 30 minutes, O’Donnell said.
She said: “I have a young boy who was very much loved by a lot of people, and it just seems completely wrong that we can’t come together to remember him and give thanks for the moments we shared. I would understand if it was prior to restrictions being dropped … but vaccinations have gone out, the people who are most at risk are covered. So for people to choose to enforce these restrictions just feels wrong.”
O’Donnell had found a private venue in Surrey but it could accommodate only 30 mourners, and religious venues had also said numbers had to be limited and insisted on religious ceremonies. Many hotels, golf courses and other venues were shut until 21 June, she added.
She felt the search for a venue had taken a toll on her mental health. “It’s killing me to be honest. It has taken so long to get him back, and now to have so many doors close in my face is just awful. I don’t feel like I’m asking for a great deal, just a space to be able to say goodbye to my baby.”
O’Donnell said her “creative, loving and happy” son had not been involved in gangs or fights. He had had dreams of a career in music.
A 22-year-old, Kamila Ahmad, was arrested on 7 March and subsequently charged with Tai’s murder. She is due to appear at the Old Bailey on 26 May.
O’Donnell now hopes a venue in Croydon or the surrounding area will answer her plea and provide a space for up to 60 people where she can hold the planned hour-and-a-half service. “We have our own ministers, an order of service and hand-written prayers. We have everything ready to go, but nowhere to go.”
Kultar Nayyar, services director for Victim Support’s National Homicide Service, which is supporting O’Donnell, said that while the restrictions during the pandemic were necessary they had meant some families who had lost a loved one to murder or manslaughter had missed out on saying their last goodbyes. “We urge the government to provide greater clarity, and for funeral providers to be accommodating to the need of families who have waited long enough to bury their loved one,” he said.
Deborah Smith, from the National Association of Funeral Directors, said the association had received other reports that some councils were reluctant to allow more than 30 guests at funerals. “We urge funeral venues or councils that are taking this approach to think again,” she said.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the legal limit on numbers of mourners at funerals would be removed on 17 May and the government was working with the funerals sector and councils to make sure they were aware and prepared.