How can we grieve with funerals on hold?

Photo by Mayron Oliveira on Unsplash

The death notices in The Bakersfield Californian, the newspaper for which I regularly write, are ordinarily organized into three groups. On a June day, the printed lists included one name under “Services Scheduled,” 20 names under “Services Pending” and two names under “No Services.”

I often read these notices in case I actually know the deceased. The names under the third heading, even if they are strangers, have always made my heart sink: Had no one in these people’s lives cared enough to send them off with any ceremony? The seeming loneliness of that header also makes me remember an acquaintance who died well over a decade ago, and my sadness at discovering that her husband had decided that her name—she with her outgoing nature and many friends and former students—belonged under “No Services.”

On this recent day, however, the score of names listed under “Services Pending” startled me because those names represented families who were not able to hold a proper funeral for their loved one, no matter how much they may have wanted to honor the departed in the usual ways. Pre-pandemic, the names under “Scheduled” and “Pending” were about even. “Pending” used to mean the details of times, dates and places were forthcoming. Now it means the details are not even scheduled because Californians are under health department orders not to gather in large groups. Funerals are no exception. The coronavirus is without pity.

The pandemic has both increased the frequency of deaths and constrained our ability to accompany the dying.

The pandemic has both increased the frequency of deaths and constrained our ability to accompany the dying. I was fortunate to be with each of my parents when they died. I try to picture those indelibly etched scenes in the context of Covid-19, when I would have had to speak tenderly to them not in person but over a cell phone held by a sympathetic medical professional. When I would have been unable to touch my father and mother, to stroke a hand or a cheek as they edged closer to exhaling their last breath on this earth. When last rites would be given by a socially distant priest, while I was not permitted to be there.

The things I was able to do for my parents as they died probably helped me more than them: I am not even certain they knew my siblings and I were there. I was grateful to be with them in their dying moments. I did not imagine a pandemic would deny that same privilege to so many thousands of family members. Grief in isolation is a vicious byproduct of the virus.

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For Catholics, death and funerals are tied together by our faith in the afterlife. The holy rituals of mourning while recognizing our loved one’s new life in God are healing, transcendent moments. Again, in the context of Covid-19, I imagine not being able to engage in planning my parents’ funerals as I did. I think with gratitude of choosing Mass readings and hymns with the same caring priest who had anointed each of my parents, writing the intercessions and serving as a eucharistic minister, all deeply meaningful balms to my grieving heart. Then I think of the lovely people who gathered with my family, who dressed in black and sent flowers and said the prayers of the Mass with us, who processed out of the church and followed us to the cemetery, who told stories about our folks, some of which we had never heard, who ate and drank and even laughed with us afterward, who sustained us with hugs and shared memories and food deliveries.

Families, at least for the time being, must do without the beautiful, end-of-life rituals that I took for granted.

These traditional steps were hard, but they were good. They were grounding. Unexpectedly, they also provided opportunities for reconciliation among the living. And now other families, at least for the time being, must do without the beautiful, end-of-life rituals that I took for granted. I wonder what it would be like to have to pause on the journey of mourning, to hold funerals or memorial services many months after a loved one’s death, if the fragility of the immediate would be lost to the mandated delay of all that is normal. I hope I do not find out firsthand.

Meanwhile, those who are mourning the death of a loved one carry on as best they can in the present circumstances. Again in Bakersfield, for example, over 300 green ribbons have been tied to a fence at the Greenlawn Funeral Home, each with the name of someone who has died and been placed in Greenlawn’s care during the pandemic. The color green represents renewal, said Greenlawn’s president, Jim LaMar, a gesture to comfort the living, to alleviate the “hole in their heart.”

Like funeral homes across the country, Greenlawn is coping with the crisis while adhering to public health restrictions on gatherings. To accommodate larger groups of mourners, it provides free-of-charge webcasts of the small services that are permitted. It is not the same, but Mr. LaMar encourages people to follow through with services at a later date “because people need to come together,” he said. “My fear is someone well-intended might say, ‘Don’t open that wound again,’ to move on from a loss.”

When you have lost someone you love, the wound never really closes, of course. But the ability to perform the corporal work of mercy to bury the dead is a salve to a sliced-open heart. Everyone freshly mourning a loss is suffering in unexpected and brutal ways. Death has become even more complicated to handle. I pray that, with our resourceful nature as humans, with faith in the afterlife, with hope for eternal rest for our dear one’s soul, with burning love that outlives the body, we will get through the limitations and indignities and sorrows, the collective grief of these Covid-19 days.

“In the wilderness I make a way,” God assures us (Is 43:19). God is still with us. God still shines a light on the path ahead of us, as we keep taking that next uncertain step.

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

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