By: Kristen Hannum
The rules for funerals changed fast in March.
Marie Henry remembered a family planning their loved one’s funeral at that time through Valley Memorial.
On Monday, March 16, the family adjusted to the limit of 50, as did the staff of the funeral home, part of Foundation Partners Group.
On Tuesday, the funeral director called them again. Now fewer than 25 mourners would be allowed.
Again the family adjusted.
Then the limit was lowered to 10 and everything changed. “We had to rethink the service,” Henry said.
While the limits feel harsh, funerals around the world in recent months have been “super-spreader” events, setting off raging numbers of coronavirus infections. The best-known example in the United States was in Albany, Georgia. At the beginning of April, that southern state had only 5,400 cases of COVID-19. Health officials said they believed a quarter of those cases could be traced to two funerals in Albany, a city about the size of Medford. At the time, that outbreak was the nation’s fourth worst per capita.
“Nobody wants to be that funeral home,” said Tim Corbett, director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Portland.
Thinking about how families can manage such loss without coming together begins with considering why we mourn collectively.
“We grieve as communities,” said Henry, “because words are inadequate. That is the process of grieving.”
Distressed families have managed these past weeks, although Elizabeth Fournier, owner of Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, believes they are not getting what they need. “People should be able to hug and kiss — and hand off the meat loaf,” she said.
Caryn Knight, a general manager with Service Corporation International, a funeral home and cemetery group, has observed that while all families in mourning are hurting from not being able to collectively mourn, Catholics in particular have longed for the comfort that comes from the sacraments and rituals funeral Masses provide. “These families are missing that.”
“Our calling is making sure a family can grieve and celebrate the passing of a loved one,” said Knight.
Their mission directly conflicts with having to tell families that fewer than 10 can attend a visitation, funeral Mass, reception or burial.
“Every single time we have to do this, it’s so hard,” said Knight.
“Funeral directors [like to] say yes,” agreed Corbett. “It’s not in their nature to say no.”
Knight has seen the limits hit tight-knit and large Vietnamese families especially hard.
Henry has noted a fierce sorrow in the Hispanic community.
The miniscule numbers allowed at the funeral Masses are just the beginning. In addition, family members are not traveling by air to be together with family. It’s almost impossible to fly the bodies of immigrants to their hometowns for burial. There aren’t the tearful receptions with their bursts of laughter over loving memories, the meals, be they potlucks with chips and sandwiches or fancy catered affairs. The photos, the hugs, the shared tissues, and the children’s faces, both solemn and mischievous, are all missing.
We all know why: We’re keeping the most vulnerable safe. Including those who don’t even know they’re vulnerable. We’re keeping Oregon’s hospitals from becoming like New York City’s, protecting brave health care and other essential workers most at risk.
But the cost is heavy.
Corbett said his goal is threefold: keeping families safe, keeping the priests safe and keeping his staff safe. It hasn’t been easy.
“Initially we were scrambling,” he said.
Instead of 10, 30 mourners would emerge from their cars for the graveside service. People would pass around the holy water, each taking a turn to sprinkle, all handling the container.
“Now we don’t supply holy water,” Corbett said.
Soon the grounds crew learned to leave when the number of mourners was too high. “If a priest is exposed, he’s quarantined for 14 days, and then he can’t be there for the next family,” said Corbett.
The same is true for the grounds crew. “I’m not just being cautious, I’m concerned,” Corbett said. “We’re in this together.”
Families have understood, he believes.
In response to the new restrictions, both funeral directors and families have been resourceful. Fournier has staggered mourners at visitations over several hours for large families. “With Catholics, immediate family can mean a lot of people,” she said.
Even though some families’ bank accounts have faltered, the funeral homes Knight works with — Zeller, Ross Hollywood, Young’s, and Pegg, Paxson & Springer — are telling people they’ll work within the family’s budget.
At Valley Memorial, Father David Schiferl, pastor of St. Alexander Parish in Cornelius, has come to give blessings which have been livestreamed to family and friends. Funerals and graveside services have been videotaped and shared.
While a funeral Mass is unchangeable, what would have been the reception or wake have been postponed or morphed or both.
Livestreamed music, Zoom meetings for champagne toasts, and even a parade have been part of the mix. Fournier described a family that put out the word on the Next Door app that they were going to have a funeral parade. They tuned their car stereos to the same music and drove past the person’s business, church and home. “People stood on their porches and waved,” she said.
The last vehicle in the cortege was a pick-up, and friends were able place flowers and cards in its bed.
Families have set times for everyone to pray the rosary together and to shout the deceased’s name to the heavens at a pre-arranged time.
Henry recalled one woman who had a recording of one of the last songs her husband had played on the piano. She sent it out for friends and family to hear.
Reading a poem, singing a song, playing music — all have provided ways for people to connect.
Backstage changes also have arrived at the cemeteries and funeral homes.
“I can’t say enough about how this has forced a learning curve at the office,” said Corbett of Mount Calvary and Gethsemani staffs. They’re now using a cloud-based network and Zoom meetings that allow them to work from home. Funeral homes and cemeteries are doing business over the phone that they previously insisted be done in person.
“One of my coworkers walked a 91-year-old woman through docusign,” said Henry, referring to digitally signing legal documents.
The basics, though, remain the same.
“A funeral marks the significance of the life lived,” said Henry.
“Whatever families need, I’m there for them,” said Fournier.
As for Knight, she has a personal reason for recommitting to her work with families and funerals. She was told last year that she had stage 4 ovarian cancer, and that she was unlikely to survive.
Somewhat miraculously now cancer free, she said she sees both the pandemic and the families she helps through a different lens. She had always thought of what she does as a calling, but that’s in her heart now. “I’m aware of life’s brevity, and that I must still have a purpose,” she said. “This is meaningful work. And that’s all anyone can ask for.”