While other countries are having to resort to extreme measures to deal with deaths associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the United States are currently dealing with how to handle ordinary deaths in extraordinary times.
Measures set in place in the U.S. in an attempt to avoid the spread of the disease are upending traditional funeral practices and leaving many loved ones in the lurch when it comes to mourning. Social distancing and other prohibitions leave many families unable to get the closure that customary funerals provide.
Randy Anderson, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and owner of Radney Funeral Home in Alexander City, said his group has encouraged funeral homes throughout the country to abide by local restrictions on gatherings.
This has meant working with faith leaders to limit funerals to 25 people and push them to each stand 6 feet apart, per state guidelines. The funeral home has also limited visitations to 10 people at a time (and then only three minutes with the family) and supplied an option for livestreaming.
Value of a funeral
“It’s very important to remember the value of a funeral socially, physically — and as religious people that is something that we value,” Anderson said. “Every life is worth remembering.”
As funeral directors across the country scramble to prepare for additional deaths of coronavirus-infected patients in the near future, local funeral homes, ministers and families are already having to get creative with giving a proper sendoff to those who die of unrelated illnesses.
Joel Carwile, pastor of First Baptist Church, Athens, recently faced that problem when David Carter, the church’s pastor for children and young families, died suddenly on March 22. Carwile turned to Facebook to get the word out on funeral plans.
“The memorial service will be a private, family only service. Our incredible FBC Athens tech team will record the service. Once the team makes the video available on our website, fbcathens.org, I will notify you on FB, Twitter, and Instagram,” he wrote. “On behalf of Renee and the girls, thank you for understanding. They so desire to see you and love on you. However, at this time, we must honor David in this way.”
It is likely that Carter himself would have understood the need for scaled-down funeral plans. Only days before his death, he was employing social media to help youth and families navigate the home-quarantine period.
Dryden Funeral Home in Heflin recently notified the public that it would no longer be open for walk-in traffic and urged customers to call ahead to make appointments.
“Also, until further notice, as mandated by Gov. Kay Ivey concerning gathering sizes, funeral services and visitations will be limited to 25 people in attendance or fewer who must maintain a distance of six feet from each other at all times,” a Facebook post noted. “We apologize for the inconvenience that we know that this will create. We will offer the ability to live stream services held in our chapel on Facebook to allow those that cannot attend the ability to take part in the service. If these parameters are changed by the Centers for Disease Control, Alabama State Health Department or the governor, we will continue to follow their guidelines. Please understand that these changes are being made to protect everyone.”
The worst may be still yet to come. U.S. clergy and spiritual leaders say they are worried that an onslaught of deaths could overrun religious infrastructures.
In Massachusetts, when Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, reviewed funeral guidelines with local public health officials, one expert left an ominous statement on the margins: “Be aware of the potential that there may be an increase in the number and frequency of deaths that exceeds the capacity for pastoral care.”
Everett included the warning in the final draft of recommendations the organization released for Christian communities wanting to hold funerals amid the epidemic.
“The church has been here before, so we have practices and models and stories to tell,” she said. “But one of the things that is so hard is that so many of the stories we fall back on are about drawing close and touching as a sign of love and compassion, and we need to tell different stories right now.”
Anderson said the NFDA is bracing for a potential uptick in deaths as well. The association’s representative has been in “constant contact” with officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since the onset of the novel coronavirus and has long been involved in what Anderson called “mass fatality planning.”
The nightmare scenario of mass deaths is already part of daily life in Italy, where the novel coronavirus had killed more than 7,500 people as of March 25 and infected more than 74,000.
Most casualties have been concentrated in the northern sections of Italy such as Bergamo, where Italians watched in horror Saturday as army trucks lined up in the early morning hours to carry the bodies of the hundreds who died due to COVID-19. Adding to the grief: Loved ones would not have a chance to mourn the deceased at a funeral, which are currently banned in the country.
The deaths have put tremendous strain on local funeral homes that can no longer keep up with the high demand, forcing the military to transport bodies to funeral homes in the south.
“Funerals are definitely an aspect that has gone missing,” Tullio Proserpio, a Catholic chaplain at the National Institute for Tumors in Milan, told Religion News Service.
Ways to help
Even so, for Rev. Francesco Pesce and other faith leaders across the globe, their spiritual obligation to others remains — coronavirus or no.
Robert Mullins, pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Elmore, recently preached a funeral under Alabama’s new guidelines.
“We met at the graveside only and practiced social distancing,” he said. “I was able to talk to the family on the phone several times for counseling, prayer and encouragement. We offered to do a celebration of life service when we are allowed to gather again.”
While families do understand why the precautions are necessary, Mullins said, it doesn’t make the new normal any easier for them.
So what can people do to help friends and family deal with a death of a loved one when they’re not supposed to crowd into their houses with a casserole, a pound cake and a lot of hugs?
“It is possible for people to use technology to encourage one another including phone calls, video chats and other tools,” Mullins suggested. “Writing a bereavement card to someone still communicates time, energy and effort put into letting someone know that you care. Gift cards for takeout and curbside service could meet an incredible need as well. You just have to think outside the box a bit and make an impact however you can.”
Rusty Sowell, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Opelika, said his church has not had a funeral under the new COVID-19 recommendations, but when the occasion arises, the church has the capability to livestream it. He said area funeral homes are already livestreaming services from their chapels and recommending small graveside services and public ones at a later date.
Complicating the process
All these restrictions, departures from the norm and delayed services can have a substantial effect on the grieving process, Sowell said.
“It complicates the moment,” he said. “It extends out the stunning reality of what’s just taken place in their lives and puts it all at a standstill.”
Leaving the celebration of life until later adds to the lack of closure, he said, and the delay can mean that the public celebration eventually doesn’t take place.
“It’s kind of up in the air,” Sowell said. “Once the cold reality moves through, they might say, ‘No, I don’t want to revisit that anymore.’”
Such considerations are likely to become more pressing as COVID-19 becomes more widespread, and Sowell acknowledged that “Auburn-Opelika has become a hotbed” of new coronavirus cases.
But Auburn-Opelika isn’t new to big challenges, and the area’s citizens find ways to recover through faith.
“Our community went through a devastating time with the tornado. We had 23 victims,” Sowell said. “We just had a night of remembrance for the one-year anniversary. During that time, we had a candle for each of the victims. Basically, it was a celebration of life and an affirmation of faith, just embracing the moment again.”
As for the coming challenges, Sowell said, “It could be a defining moment.” (Religion News Service contributed)