How coronavirus is changing the ways we grieve and mourn the dead
A wooden casket is lifted onto a hearse at a funeral home in Brooklyn, New York City, on April 5, 2020. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images “The normal healing process has been disrupted,” a rabbi told Vox. In life, Colleen Dilger’s 80-year-old mother was “a very social animal” who “never spent a moment by herself.” But the memorial service commemorating Sandra Stein following her death from cancer on March 26 is likely to be a much less social affair. Due to coronavirus social distancing measures, the funeral home in Buffalo, New York, where the service is being held, is offering only two visitation options: Mourners can either walk past the casket one at a time, or drive by in their cars. “It feels so incomplete because she always had family around her,” Dilger told me. Dilger’s experience is quickly becoming the new normal. To help curb the spread of the coronavirus across the country, a number of US states have issued stay-at-home orders and banned gatherings of more than 10 people, including religious services. Thus, funeral professionals and religious leaders now have to weigh a family’s need to mourn and the importance of conducting funeral rituals against both the safety of the larger community and potential legal consequences of violating state orders. As a result, many funeral homes are severely restricting the number of people allowed to gather for visitations, memorials, and funerals, or offering alternative options like livestreaming. And even when a few close family members are allowed to attend a service in person, they’re often still required to maintain 6 feet of distance between one another at all times. Which means the coronavirus that has interfered with so much of life is similarly interfering with all aspects of death. “The normal healing process has been disrupted,” Rabbi Elana Zelony of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, Texas, told me. “The deceased doesn’t know the difference during this period, but the living do” Memorial and funeral processes have changed in subtle but important ways since the coronavirus struck America. Jeff Jorgenson owns funeral homes in California and Washington state. He told me that the timeline of services is now longer and the precautions he and his team take are much more thorough, but that most funeral homes still accept the bodies of people who have died of Covid-19. For example, before the outbreak, Jorgenson would retrieve the deceased by going to a hospital’s security or admitting office and having a staffer accompany him to the morgue. But on a more recent hospital visit, he discovered that the process had gotten a lot more complicated. “I had to go through screening, and then screening sent me up to admitting. Admitting sent me back to security, where security validated that I had been screened, and then I could go to the morgue,” Jorgenson told me. “It was two extra steps, really, but it added 25 minutes to transferring the person into my care. If you repeat that for three bodies, you’ve added about an hour and a half to your day.” But that lengthened process only happens if a hospital and a funeral home can arrange a pickup. In New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the US, that’s not a guarantee. Already, funeral homes are overwhelmed with the amount of bodies they’re taking. “There is just not enough capacity in the funeral homes in Queens and Brooklyn to handle the number of people dying right now,” Patrick Kearns, who owns the Leo Kearns Funeral Home in Rego Park (a neighborhood in Queens), told the New York Daily News. When they do pick up a body, sometimes it’s not lying in the morgue, but rather in a refrigerated trailer outside of the hospital. The US government is expected to send 85 additional trucks to the city in the days ahead. If the deceased’s family can’t arrange a transfer to a mortuary within eight days, New York City officials organize the burial or cremation process. That may include burying the body in a temporary grave in a public park until more space opens up in funeral homes. For those families who are able to get their loved one transferred to a funeral home, there may still be delays in holding a memorial service. A funeral home in the city can’t hold more than three services a day, which allows staff to clean and disinfect in between families. New York City’s funeral situation is much more dire than in most parts of the country, but even in places less hard-hit there are challenges. John Wenig, the president of Wenig Funeral Homes in Wisconsin, knows almost every client he has because of the tight-knit community. Which is why it was so hard for Wenig to tell a woman who lost her husband after 60 years of marriage that his funeral home couldn’t offer the service she wanted for him. The reason has less to do with capacity and more to do with state and federal funeral guidelines. Basically, touching the body in any way — kissing, hand holding, hugging — is highly discouraged in case there’s a transfer of disease. More important, though, are the social distancing rules. Visitations, memorial services, and funerals tend to draw large crowds. With most states restricting groups larger than 10 people, it’s impossible to hold such a big ceremony. “That makes it hard on the grieving process for the whole family,” Wenig told me. “The elements of grief that are needed and most appreciated is the closeness of families coming together — the hugs, the kisses, holding each other. That is not happening right now simply because families need to maintain he six-foot distance.” Wenig allows his clients to do small visitations and funerals, but is pushing all large memorial services to the summer at the earliest. “The deceased doesn’t know the difference during this period,” Wenig continued, “but the living do.” Jorgenson, the owner of funeral homes in California and Washington state, also acknowledged the emotional hardship this situation has created, but he is unapologetic about taking these necessary precautions. “At this point in this pandemic, it’s my responsibility as a funeral professional to my community, and the world at large, to not cause harm,” he said. “And if not causing harm in my community means you don’t get to see your dad — I’m sorry, this is bigger than you.” “That goes against most funeral professionals’s core being,” Jorgenson added, “but it’s the right thing to do.” Religious leaders can’t care for their congregations as usual After losing a loved one, millions of Americans turn to their religious communities for support and comfort. But social distancing measures are changing what that support and comfort looks like. Rev. Bill Parnell, a top leader in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, told me many in the 175 worshipping communities he helps oversee are struggling with the restrictions the social distancing measures are putting on their grieving process. For instance, a retired priest died two weeks ago in Cape Cod from the coronavirus, leaving behind his wife who is also infected. The priest’s family couldn’t come visit him while he was sick, or to the funeral service after he died because of travel and space restrictions. “That’s just heartbreaking,” the reverend told me. “I can’t imagine what that must feel like.” It’s harder because now that church services have moved online — where attendance has actually grown, Parnell said — there’s no physical community to help console the grieving family. Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images Pastor Rob McCoy leads a communion ceremony after an online Palm Sunday service in Thousand Oaks, California, on April 5. Zelony, the rabbi in Texas and the first woman to lead a Conservative Movement synagogue in the state, has had a similar experience. “I’m definitely grateful for the technology, but it’s so awkward,” she told me. “It’s much harder to read the body cues. I can’t hand them a Kleenex or give them a hug.” That bothers her, because “one of my jobs is to give people hope and support.” She also said traditional religious burial practices have been disrupted. Jews in the Conservative Movement traditionally pour dirt into a loved ones grave until it covers the top of the casket. That was easier to do when it was 50 to 60 people at a ceremony, she told me, but it’s much harder now when no more than 10 can attend. “It made me notice the absence of having many community members to help.” Families also can’t observe the week-long shiva mourning period as before, Zelony said. During this time, family and friends would normally stop by the home of the deceased’s family to offer food and condolences. But that doesn’t happen in the same way now because few people are traveling and large gatherings are discouraged. “It’s just not possible in the same kind of way,” the rabbi said. “I’ve seen Jews take comfort in the traditions of mourning,” she added, “and now they feel cheated.” Many Muslims feel the same way. Imam Ibraheem Bakeer of the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City told me that it’s customary in Islam for friends and family to gather and pray over the body of the deceased. But that can’t happen now because of social distancing guidelines, which have led him to restrict visitations to no more than three people at a time. Bakeer said he’s faced a lot of backlash for that decision. “It’s very tough, but our job is to convince these people and give them the conviction that we are in a bad situation and in critical circumstances,” he told me. “We can’t do the regular things, and they have to understand this.” Still, he understands their frustrations. “It’s an emotional thing,” he said. “Death is on everybody’s mind” Alua Arthur is a “death doula” based in Los Angeles. Death doulas, sometimes called end-of-life doulas, are trained non-medical professionals who provide emotional care and logistical planning and support to people who are facing death (often people in hospice) and their loved ones. Arthur provides her clients with companionship and emotional support in their final days, as well as practical help taking care of the myriad administrative tasks surrounding death and estate planning. That support may involve just being a person to talk to or even opening mail when such a task seems too hard in trying times. But the coronavirus has upended that dynamic. Instead of being in the home of a client, she uses FaceTime or other technology in her home to stay in touch. It’s nowhere near the same, as she struggles to pick up on the nonverbal cues that allow her to do her job the best. But the hardest part, she told me, is watching her clients and loved ones struggle with the uncertainty of death, especially as the coronavirus rages. “We have grief compounding grief,” Arthur said. “We have the grief around the type of death that they envisioned that they can’t have, or the type of dying process the family envisioned that they don’t have. We have the grief around what the death could look like, and then we have the actual dying that’s happening, and then the grief around not being able to bury them or memorialize them in the way they wanted.” She believes this grief is more widespread than most let on. Covid-19’s ubiquity in our lives means “death is on everybody’s mind, when it wasn’t before,” Arthur said. There’s a “sense of ‘Oh shit, I might die from this.’” If there’s a silver lining, it’s that thousands will have to get creative in the way they grieve and mourn. “It’s hard to find a new ritual and give it meaning,” she said. “It’s hard because you might have to break the mold” of a traditional memorial and funeral service, which will require “removing judgment about what we’re doing or not doing.” “This isn’t about thinking outside the box, it’s about creating a whole new box — and that’s hard when we’re anxious, and fearful, and uncomfortable,” Arthur told me. But whatever form it takes, remembering the ones we love most may be one of the most important things any of us does during this time.