Apr 9, 2020
Coronavirus is changing how Americans say goodbye
Maggie Farley wants to remember the way her father lived — the Denver probate lawyer’s sense of humor, integrity and decades fighting for affordable housing — not how he died of COVID-19 with no family permitted at his hospital bedside.
“I don’t feel like he died with regrets and I don’t feel like we left anything unsaid, but I really would have liked to have been there to hold his hand,” said Farley, of Bethesda, Maryland. “It’s an essential human fear that we don’t want to die alone, and the worst part of it for our family was knowing that he was in the hospital alone.”
Nearly 10,800 Americans have died in the outbreak as of April 6, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus database. Federal estimates put the ultimate death toll somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000. That’s in addition to the normal mortality rate in the country.
All of those deaths will require some sort of final rite.
For many, a funeral is a ritual of loss and connection where we remember the dead and comfort the living. But the coronavirus outbreak has altered that ritual and changed the way we say goodbye: the loss remains, the connections change.
The day after Gov. Kate Brown’s “stay home” order, 75-year-old Darrel Linker of Springfield faced uncertainty about what it meant, while at the same time navigating immeasurable grief.
His wife of 55 years, Janet, died March 23 at the age of 74, and Darrel wondered if he was even allowed to go to the funeral home. When he learned he could, he decided to cancel the funeral and just have a viewing of his wife by himself.
“Tomorrow I’m going to see her for the last time,” he said. “Have nothing but a bunch of memories cropping up then.”
Gone are huge public funerals and wakes in funeral homes filled with mourners who cry and laugh, linger and reminisce. In their place across much of the country are family-only funeral home visitations of 10 or fewer, livestreamed memorials and plans to gather when the world gets back to normal.
Farley said she’s grateful to the nurses at Denver’s Swedish Medical Center who tended to her father, who died March 23 at 87, and set up FaceTime sessions so the family could talk to him and, two days later, see last rites administered.
“Dying alone is the hardest part, but it’s also really hard to grieve alone,” Farley said. “People think that doing a video conference or talking to the friends on Zoom or Zoom cocktail hour is awkward and alienating, but grieving alone is really isolating.”
A glimpse at any newspaper’s obituary pages tells the story.
“In light of the recent worldwide occurrences dealing with the outbreak of COVID-19, the family would like to have hours of visitation and burial services reserved for immediate family,” reads one.
Another: “A celebration of her life will be held at a later date.”
The outbreak has brought dizzying, near-daily changes to funerals over the past three weeks, said Mark Flower, a third-generation funeral director and owner of Flower Funeral Home in Yonkers, New York.
“We went from having open funerals to having a (maximum) of 50 or 50% of the chapel size, to now where it’s private only for family members, and, only up to 10 people,” he said.
“The situation is so fluid,” Flower said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. We’re basically winging it. When you do funerals, you always have to be flexible. But how we handle things is so different than the norm of a traditional funeral.”
Marc Lund, who owns two funeral homes in Eugene and Cottage Grove, has seen the impact on grieving family members.
“The real issue for funeral homes as we’re unfolding is realizing that coming together to mourn puts us at risk,” he said.
They are encouraging people to have memorials at a later date, after the burial or cremation. His homes also have been developing livestreaming, so more people can say goodbye.
“It’s an awkward situation for funeral directors because we’re not wired to tell people no. We’re in the business of compassionately helping people memorialize,” said Wally Ordeman, who is interim executive director of the Oregon Funeral Directors Association.
“That’s where the pain for the funeral director comes in,” he said, in having to start the conversation with a list of “don’ts.”
The association recommended changes such as only allowing people to watch the burial from a distance, like their cars. Lund’s homes also have the option to do all planning for cremations online, which he said has been utilized more lately.
Funerals without hugs
There have been other changes brought on by the outbreak:
- The Archdiocese of New York and the Archdiocese of Newark in New Jersey — in the country’s hardest-hit area — have canceled all funerals and now limit the number of graveside mourners to the state-mandated 10 people who must keep their distance as the priest offers a blessing at the grave. All services must be in the open air.
- Cemeteries are setting rules for graveside behavior, with mourners kept at a distance until the burial is complete and cemetery workers leave.
- With airline travel at a near standstill and mourners reluctant to travel, funeral homes are livestreaming funerals to connect far-flung mourners.
- Funeral homes are using digital DocuSign to complete official documents, and handling arrangements over the phone or via email.
- In funeral home chapels, chairs have been removed from rows of seats to keep mourners at a distance.
- In many locales, the number of mourners has been set to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations: just immediate family of no more than 10 people at a time.
A toll on businesses
Funerals are big business.
The National Directory of Morticians Redbook reports there were 19,136 funeral homes in the U.S. last year, making up a sizable part of the $16.3 billion industry that includes funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories.
Nearly 90% of the country’s funeral homes are privately owned by families or individuals, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Dutch Nie, the group’s secretary, owns Nie Family Funeral Home & Cremation Service in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where gatherings statewide have been limited to groups of 50 or fewer.
He said funeral directors are having to get creative when it comes to crowd control, asking mourners to stagger when they arrive for visitation and not to linger once they’ve offered their condolences.
“People are scheduling out the memorial service at a later date,” Nie said. “We probably have 12 of them scheduled in June and July, I think our latest one is in September, where they will be able to come back together and have the memorial service at that point.”
The group created rememberingalife.com as a resource. It includes COVID-19 updates.
Keith Taylor, owner of Hannemann Funeral Home in Nyack, New York, said the outbreak will take an economic toll far beyond the funeral homes.
“When you have a funeral, people want flowers. Here, there’s no flowers,” he said. “Then, between the early and late visitations, there’s a break where they’ll go to a restaurant with the family and have a little reception. That’s all cut out. Then after the funeral the next day, they usually have a get together at the house and have a caterer come in or they have it at a restaurant. And that’s all cut out.”
Taylor said the social distancing rules have turned him and his staff into “funeral director police,” tasked with gently reminding mourners of the new reality, one that pits tradition and emotion against a pandemic.
The pandemic is winning.
Smaller and smaller gatherings
State mandates are shifting constantly, reducing the number of permitted gatherings.
When Jonnie B. Wilson Sr., of Newark, Delaware, died March 6, the state’s gathering limit was 100.
Wilson ran a Wilmington lighting business for 40 years. The Army veteran was a father of four and the youngest of 11 siblings. Limiting the memorial to 100 would be hard. Then, days before the service, the gathering limit dropped to 50.
The family made phone calls, prioritized the closest family, culled mourners from the sanctuary.
“They knew it wasn’t personal, but I’m sure it hurt many of them,” said Wilson’s son Jermaine.
The veterans cemetery halted military honors the day before the service: no flag-draped casket, no ceremonial salute. Mourners sat in their cars as “Taps” played to an empty cemetery.
“There was no other service,” Jermaine Wilson said. “I’m going to try to not let that bother me.”
Honoring the dead via Facebook Live
Technology is helping to fill the void, though never completely.
At Holloway Funeral Home in Salisbury, Maryland, Jonathan Holloway said his customers historically have not embraced webcasting of funerals. The coronavirus could change that.
“Webcasting is a way we can still tell someone’s story through funeral service, even under the current restrictions,” Holloway said. His and other funeral homes across the country have turned to social media amid social distancing, using Facebook Live to honor the dead.
He said Facebook is better than the proprietary software they had been using: The video is automatically archived on the funeral home’s Facebook page and video quality is downgraded automatically to accommodate slow connections, meaning Holloway’s high-definition broadcast can be seen almost anywhere, even if in a lower quality.
Still, said Michele Howell, associate executive director of the Independent Funeral Directors of Florida, technology can only do so much.
“It’s difficult. At a time when someone loses a loved one, there’s nothing more that they want than to hold hands or give a hug, and it’s made it really difficult on families,” she said.
‘Some people will have to mourn in silence’
In Corpus Christi, Texas, Wayne Jackson grieved the loss of his brother, Howlis “Magic” Scott, with a much smaller group than he would have anticipated.
“You just got to accept what’s going on now. It’s reality,” Jackson said. “Some people will just have to mourn in silence, like everybody else around the country right now.”
In Corpus Christi, memorial services are livestreamed free of charge.
“This isn’t anything that anybody planned on,” said Noe Lopez Jr., a funeral director and co-owner of the Saxet Funeral Home in Corpus Christi. “It’s not the family’s fault that this happened to them. So, we’re doing the best we can to utilize our resources and our staff to try to help everybody get through this dark time.”
There are other high-tech accommodations: Additional mourners can watch the service on a closed-circuit TV in other rooms; register books are fitted with disinfecting UV light; families can use DocuSign for digital signatures.
Then there’s the low-tech: removing two out of three chairs in a row and sanitizing register pens after each use. Lopez’s staff placed masking-tape X’s six feet apart on the floor of the chapel, to reinforce social distance rules. And the casket is covered in a glass dome so visitors can’t touch it.
In Oklahoma, state funeral board director Chris Ferguson said the full extent of the coronavirus outbreak is still the great unknown.
“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen when those bodies start appearing in mass numbers,” Ferguson said.
Sitting shiva via Zoom
Jewish and Muslim burial customs, which include more intimate washings and preparations for bodies, are typically performed within 24 hours of a person’s death.
When a member of Temple Beth Sholom in Melbourne, Florida, died recently, Rabbi Craig Mayers told the deceased’s out-of-state family members they could watch the graveside burial over the video-conferencing app Zoom.
“There will be just a few of us at the gravesite. We’ll do a proper memorial later,” Mayers said, adding that traditional meal of consolation that follows would not be held.
The Jewish custom of sitting shiva, where mourners visit the family in their home, was also conducted via Zoom.
“No meal of consolation, no sitting shiva ... these things are suspended for health and safety right now,” Mayers said. “It’s very sad but at the same time we are blessed to live in an age where we have this technology that allows us to still be a community.”
The funeral director at The Madonna Multinational Home for Funerals in Passaic, New Jersey, who goes by the name Madonna, said that families are devastated about the minimal personal interaction allowed.
“With the rules coming from the governor, we are doing everything one size fits all,” she said. “It doesn’t matter the faith or race, everyone is the same and the cemetery is treating people the same way.”
Maggie Farley has joined her grieving mother in Denver to help her navigate a new reality. They are together, apart.
“She’s technically quarantined and I can’t even hug her because we’re supposed to stay 6 feet apart,” Farley said. “And that’s excruciating.”
When they can hug again, she said, “It’s going to be a good one. We’ve earned that one.”
Reported by: Jordyn Brown, Suzanne Russell, Julia Rentsch, Vicky Camarillo, Kristie Cattafi, Katie Sobko, Stacey Barchenger, J.D. Gallop, Josh Dulaney, Hannah Morse, Steve Patterson, Deena Yellin, Ryan McKinnon, Xerxes Wilson.