Burials without funerals, grief without hugs: Coronavirus is changing how we say goodbye

USA World

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.”

More than 4,000 Americans have died in the outbreak, 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.

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 and set up FaceTime sessions so the family could talk to him and, two days later, see last rites administered.

Nancy Farley gets together with her family for a virtual wake on her laptop to mark the death of Mike Farley, her husband of 59 years. Mike Farley, 87, died in a Denver hospital on March 23, 2020, with family not permitted to be at his side. The coronavirus outbreak is changing how we grieve, including the way funerals are handled.

Mike Farley died March 23 at 87.

“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.”

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Dizzying change

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.

Mark A. Flower, the manager of the Flower Funeral Home in Yonkers, N.Y., says funeral directors are "basically winging it" during the coronavirus pandemic.

“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.”

Flower oversaw the entombment of Robert Terraforte Sr., a native New Yorker who died March 21 in Tennessee, where he was living with his son, Robert Jr.

The arrangements included flying his remains back to New York, a task made more difficult by airlines reducing their flight schedules amid the outbreak. Some Florida funeral homes have opted to ship bodies via ground transportation.

There was no funeral, which would have drawn dozens of Terraforte friends and family from across Westchester County, where the coronavirus first took root in New York.

Robert Terraforte Sr., right, and his namesake, Robert Terraforte Jr., in 2003. The elder Terraforte died on March 21, 2020, at age 89.

Terrafortes live a long time, Robert Terraforte Jr. explained, and no one wanted to have his father’s sisters, age 95 and 93, and his 91-year-old brother possibly exposed to the coronavirus. The family will gather in the late summer or fall, he said.

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.

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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, manager of Hannemann Funeral Home in Nyack, N.Y., says the coronavirus pandemic has turned him and his staff into "funeral director police."

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.

The funeral for Raymond Zipkis was livestreamed Tuesday for family and friends who couldn’t attend because of precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

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. 

Rabbi Craig Mayers of Temple Beth Sholom in Melbourne, Fla., says “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.”

“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.”

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Longer than 9/11

Jason Toale, vice president of operations for Robert Toale and Sons Funeral Home in Sarasota, Florida, has been in the industry for 52 years and has seen tumultuous times before, but this pandemic stands apart.

“After 9/11 there was a lot of upheaval, but that was a short time frame and this is looking like a longer time frame to get back to normalcy,” he said. 

At Brunswick Memorial Funeral Home in East Brunswick, New Jersey, owner Michael Kulbacki said the changes in funeral arrangements must strike a balance.

The Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Hanover on March 27, 2020. Cemeteries are closed due to the spread of the coronavirus, limiting the number of immediate family members who could attend a funeral along with funeral directors and clergy.

“Our first priority is always the safety of the living. That’s fundamentally what we’re dealing with here. Sanctity of the deceased is a priority but we’re not going to put the living at risk in order to do that,” Kulbacki said.

Together, apart

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 six 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: 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.

Reach Peter D. Kramer at pkramer@lohud.com or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. 

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