Braving bitter cold and gusting winds, nearly a dozen people said prayers in their native Dakota language as they watched a bonfire blaze through a deceased man’s clothing, sending a thin trail of smoke drifting over the snow-covered hills on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The traditional burning of garments represented a final rite of passage for the spirit of Francis Jay Country Jr., a 66-year-old tribal elder and musician whose life was cut short this month by the coronavirus. The bonfire also culminated two days of elaborate ceremonies in which a tribal chief, dressed in an eagle feather headdress, led family members in songs, drumming and prayers facing the four directions.
For Mary White-Country, now a widow, the rituals brought much-needed comfort that her husband’s spirit was no longer suffering and had begun its journey. “Today, I have cried all my tears,” she said after the ceremony. “There is closure because my husband was sent off in a respectful manner, in a way that honored his traditions.”
But the burial customs and ceremonies that many Indigenous communities have cherished for generations are under pressure from an unforeseen enemy — COVID-19.
The coronavirus is killing American Indians at staggeringly high rates, inflicting incalculable trauma and exposing historic gaps in the predominantly white-owned funeral services industry. Only a handful of morticians in the region have specialized training in the diverse Indigenous customs that follow a tribal member’s death and know how to navigate the complex process for arranging burials on reservations. Overwhelmed by an upsurge of bodies, these funeral directors are being forced to turn away many Native families, depriving them of a traditional ceremony and emotional closure.
Nationwide, American Indians are perishing from COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of white people, but the disparities are even greater across the Upper Midwest. Over 10 months of the pandemic, Native Americans in Minnesota have died at four times the rate of white Minnesotans, and they are being hospitalized at nearly 3.5 times the rate of whites after adjusting for age, according to state Department of Health data.
Few have borne closer witness to this deadly toll in Indian Country than Robert Gill of Buffalo, Minn., a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe and among the only Native American morticians in the country.
A gentle hero to many tribal members, Gill has made it his life’s mission to restore Native burial customs and to “decolonize,” as he calls it, the process of honoring and burying those who die on Indian reservations. Since the arrival of the coronavirus, death has become an all-encompassing specter of Gill’s daily life, consuming his days and even his nights. He travels hundreds of miles each week to remote tribal communities as far west as the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and as far north as the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation near the Canadian border.
Before the pandemic, Gill was being asked to arrange three to four burial ceremonies a month for Native families. Now the 50-year-old mortician is receiving that many funeral requests every week.
Even with a punishing work schedule, he sometimes struggles with guilt over his inability to meet the surging demand for traditional burial services. He knows that many tribal families are being left with no choice but to turn to white-owned funeral homes with morticians who do not understand their language and customs. Without ceremonies rooted in their culture, Gill argues, tribal members are disconnected from their history and unable to mourn properly.
“Where is our humanity?” Gill asked, as he prepared to load a casket into his waiting hearse. “An expression of a life that was lived brings closure for a family. And if they can’t have that, then it’s not dignified.”
A dark legacy
The dearth of funeral options, some tribal leaders argue, is a legacy of America’s dark history of racial subjugation of American Indians and their religious practices. Until 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, spiritual ceremonies like the sweat lodge and drum dances were still technically illegal. The prohibitions enabled Christian churches to establish deep footholds on reservations and further restrict Indigenous customs — including their ceremonies for honoring the deceased.
“As a kid, they called us ‘devil worshipers,’ and we were taught to be ashamed of our own culture and traditions,” said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and elder of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “Even our funeral ceremonies were outlawed.”
For Gill, the doors to becoming a professional seemed all but sealed as a child growing up along the wooded shores of Buffalo Lake on the Lake Traverse reservation. Gill suspects that, were it not for his unrelenting mother, he never would have graduated from the reservation’s public high school in Sisseton, S.D., which still calls its sports teams “the Redmen.”
When he was in second grade, Gill’s mother became alarmed when her son kept coming home from school with headaches. Gill, then just 9, told her that white teachers were beating him with rulers and regularly pulling on his ears and hair. His mother, Patricia Gill-Eagle, then learned of another boy who was beaten so badly with a broomstick that welts formed on his back. Fed up, Gill’s mother and 10 other parents removed their children from the local elementary school in Sisseton and opened their own tribal school.
“The public school made my son feel little, like he couldn’t make it in the world,” said Gill-Eagle, a retired nurse who is still active in the tribal school system. “He didn’t learn to be a proud Native until we pulled him out
After attending a nursing program, Gill spent nine years working as an ambulance driver and emergency medical technician (EMT) on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations in the Dakotas, where he says the poor treatment of deceased Natives became impossible to ignore. It sometimes took hours for a mortician to arrive and remove a body after someone died; and the bodies could be decomposed beyond recognition, he said. The non-Native morticians who arrived at the death scenes would sometimes talk or joke about a recently deceased person as if grieving relatives were “invisible or not in the room,” Gill recalled.
“I witnessed a deep lack of respect,” Gill said. “It opened my eyes and made me realize that we have customs and traditions that allow us to care for the deceased, but we weren’t being allowed to practice them.”
Determined to bring more dignity to the burial process, he enrolled in the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago, where he graduated in 2012. He is believed to be the only licensed mortician of Dakota heritage in the country.
Long-distance house calls
Today Gill is virtually alone in the funeral business for his willingness to make long-distance house visits — sometimes driving entire days, through sleet and snow, to meet with tribal families in their homes. Each visit carries the risk that he will contract the virus still raging through Indian Country. Gill is the only one of five morticians who work at Chilson Funeral Chapel in central Minnesota who has not been sickened by COVID-19.
“You’ve got to have nerves of steel to do this work in a pandemic,” Gill said.
Beyond the ceremonies, he spends long hours in the embalming room preparing bodies for public viewing. Too often, Gill said, he heard tribal members complain of how their loved ones “looked like clowns” after non-Native morticians failed to recognize their darker skin hues and used bright-colored makeup (purples and reds) meant for white skin, he said. Gill carries a cosmetics kit on the road and often touches up a body before a ceremony.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why do my people not have their own funeral homes?” he said. “We buried our own for hundreds of years.”
On a frigid day in mid-January, Gill traveled 200 miles through an unforgiving blizzard to a hamlet on the far reaches of the Lake Traverse Reservation to meet with relatives of Ronald Allen Goodsell, a 69-year-old former construction worker who died just days earlier from COVID-19. The evening light was still pouring through the windows of the family’s kitchen when Gill and his broad, 6-foot-3-inch frame appeared in the doorway with a suitcase full of documents.
He was greeted by three generations of Goodsell family members — including siblings, cousins and grandchildren — who came and went through the crowded kitchen as Gill talked them through the traditional burial process. The family had decided to give Goodsell an Indian name, “Tatanka Ob Mani” (Walks with Buffalo), which involved a separate naming ceremony. Then came a long discussion over the limited choice of caskets. Goodsell’s widow wanted a coffin decorated in the Native colors of the four directions (black, red, yellow and white). But such a casket, the family learned, simply did not exist.
The family would have to settle on a generic brown coffin that lacked any exterior symbols of the deceased’s Dakota heritage.
“It’s unfortunate, but there are no Native funeral casket-making companies anywhere in this country,” Gill calmly explained to the Goodsells.
“We’re always having to deal with these ‘wasichu’ (whites) for everything and they just don’t understand us,” responded Nola Ragan, the widow’s sister.
Before departing, the family handed Gill a small collection of Goodsell’s clothes — including a traditional, white-ribbon shirt made by the deceased’s grandson — to dress his body when he returned to Minnesota.
Gill politely thanked the family and stepped out into the clear, star-filled night on the reservation.
On the long return trip to Minnesota, he could smell the faint scent of the man’s clothes next to him on the passenger seat, and he rehearsed what he would say at his ceremony.
Finally arriving home past 10 p.m., Gill had a late supper with his wife, Bonita, and then laid out a suit for the next day’s journey back to the reservation.
French archaeologists said Thursday they discovered the grave of a small child with what appears to be a pet dog dating to the Roman rule of the region about 2,000 years ago.
The researchers said they found the burial site during a dig at the Clermont-Ferrand Airport in central France. They believe the child was about a year old and buried with animal offerings along with the remains of the pet dog inside a coffin.
The coffin was found in a 6-by-3-foot grave. It was surrounded by 20 objects, including terra cotta vases, glass pots, half a pig, three hams and other pork cuts along with two headless chickens.
“The graves of young Gallo-Roman children are often located outside the community funeral home and sometimes even buried near the family home,” a statement from France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research said. “These toddlers rarely benefit from the same funeral practices as their elders, who at that time were generally cremated.
“The furniture that accompanies the deceased of Aulnat is quite exceptional, both in terms of its quantity and quality. Such a profusion of dishes and butchery items, as well as the personal belongings that followed the child to his grave, underline the privileged rank to which his family belonged,” the institute said.
The discovery is part of a dig that covers 7.4 acres where numerous objects from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages have been found. Researchers are conducting tests of glassware and containers to learn what they might have held.
Mourning is important. Mourning is necessary. Last rites, farewell rituals; now I understand the magnified conventions of burials and vigils.
When a life comes to an end abruptly, without due decay of age and illness, when youth is disgraced by an unceremonious death, then the loss becomes perpetual, the mourning is eternal, and sorrow is born. Like an infant, it needs to be tended to, weep to maturity, until it becomes an existence in itself, to fill the void left by the untimely demise of its origin. Then, perhaps, the debt is paid. Then, perhaps, the order of things is spared of merciless trauma.
It is not just humans that are living. The bonds between them have lives of their own. They, too, have natural courses of life and death. They, however, can be killed off with bloodshed, buried without trail, drowned in the dead of the night.
And that is what makes feelings dangerous: our self-deceptive ease of their denial. That is what makes them terrifyingly powerful.
When you love in silence, you do not yet know – you one day might have to mourn in silence, too. You might have to deny yourself the faintest whisper of devastating pain. And one day, you wake up to find it gone. And you embrace your newfound faith in the miracle of forgetfulness, the numbing balm of time.
But that’s the thing about undocumented assaults – you fling the evidence of your crimes into a river and walk away and one day find yourself under trial for a dead body that washes ashore on the riverbank of memory.
You wonder if the bitterness ever goes away. You think abandoning a feeling would make it wither, until one night, there is again poison trickling down your insides. All you asked was not to be the harbour where bitterness comes to find anchor. All you ever asked was to become the ocean itself.
Your deeds, your excesses, your injustice, your trauma, your unwept tears, your unspoken pains – everything catches up with you like mad hounds you couldn’t throw off your scent.
It is immensely naïve and profoundly ignorant for man to believe that the laws of universe are null and void in the empty spaces between each of our lives. How is that, an action has to have a reaction, but that human action has no consequences? That the things we do to each other deflect into some dark black abyss from where nothing ever returns? Do we actually believe that if we manage to inflict pain upon someone who does not have it in their power to claim retribution or recompense, the scores are settled? Accounts balanced? Charges dismissed? Case closed?
It’s the people who leave you for dead. Or those who drive you to the edge of cliffs and turn back just in time to avoid having to watch you fall. Somehow they think, not being a witness to the crime mitigates their culpability, diminishes their responsibility, validates their denial.
If it is ignorance, it is blind; if self-deception, destructive. Nothing ever really goes away. We do, and we will; but the legacy of endured, undeserved pain, stays.
The laws of the universe are not null and void – they are in vicious motion. It is only a matter of time. Time: the unknown variable, the great equaliser, the unrelenting ombudsman.
Standing around in a churchyard and going for soup and sandwiches after a funeral is part of a centuries-old tradition, but we have had to adapt to different grieving measures due to Covid-19, writes Joyce Fegan.
AT THE height of the global pandemic, just 10 mourners were allowed per funeral. When restrictions were eased that number only increased to 25.
Wakes did not happen. There was no gathering in churchyards to shake the hands of the bereaved and no soup and sandwiches in the local pub afterwards to share stories about the life of the deceased.
This curtailment of our oldest and most celebrated ritual has meant that people have not been able to grieve their loved ones nor be consoled by the sympathies of others, as they normally would have been.
Donal Forde has been burying people for 35 years but, in 2020, funerals as he knew them changed.
“They [the public] miss the physical contact of being able to shake hands and hug. There were people who would have always expected big crowds at their funeral and that didn’t happen.
“The general public miss being able to go to funerals. People like to offer their support — just being there and shaking hands can mean so much,” says Donal.
When it was down to 10 mourners only, families found that restriction particularly hard but, with 25, most families could just about manage.
While removals, wakes and refreshments have all stopped, Irish people did different things to pay their respects during the pandemic.
“At the rural funerals, you’d have people on every corner, from the house to church and from the church to cemetery, paying their respects. And in the city, it’s gathering outside the house,” explains Donal.
However, what has had the biggest effect on people, in his observation, is families being unable to be with their loved ones as they die.
“The biggest thing we’ve noticed with families is the not being able to enter into nursing homes and hospitals and the just getting in on last few days. That’s had a big effect on people. Or only one family member has been allowed in,” he states.
The effect has been, people are still upset. It’s hard to know how it will affect them in the long term.
One organisation that flagged the possible side effects of grieving in exceptional times was the Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF).
Orla Keegan is the head of education and bereavement services at the IHF. At the height of the pandemic, the IHF decided to set up a bereavement helpline for people experiencing the death of someone they loved because of Covid-19 or a death from other causes.
They realised that people may also be finding a previous bereavement more difficult at this time.
While so much was “unknown” in March 2020, the helpline was set up and modelled on the “notion of psychological first aid or bereavement first aid”, says Orla.
People of all age groups ring the helpline, from adult children to friends and people in their 20s right up to their 90s.
As head of education, Orla says that the foundation is very clear to “never minimise a loss”.
The longer you’ve had someone, the more you’ve had to lose and mourn. There is a lifetime of memories.
People say: ‘Oh, you get used to loss as you get older’, but that is a myth,” she says.
Orla says that the wake, removal and funeral all serve functions for human beings and each of those have been “disrupted” this year.
“They help us come to terms with the reality of the death, that physical presence. The being there at the time of death helps with that, so too does the funeral. It also helps us feel our pain and have our pain witnessed by the community and, in viewing pain, people want to come towards us to commiserate. It’s part of the social contract.
“It’s showing us the person’s place in the community. You get to really define who that person was; you’re beginning that part of telling the story. You meet people you haven’t seen for years and they’re telling stories you’d never heard — it could be your father’s work colleague.
“So that got a bit disrupted, to put it frankly. People have to find different ways of doing it or they are feeling robbed or cut off from that,” says Orla.
The Christian funeral is of “profound importance to Irish society, allowing a celebration of the life of the deceased,” says historian Dr Marion McGarry.
The rituals surrounding our funerals allowed the bereaved to mourn, grieve and, hopefully, recover in a healthy manner.
She says the purpose of rituals at an Irish funeral is twofold.
“It is a way for the community to mark the passing of one of their members and show sympathy to those who have lost their loved ones,” says Dr McGarry.
For the bereaved, seeing people turn up in this way, gathering together in large numbers to shake hands, acknowledges their grief and can be of great comfort.
Going back hundreds of years, Irish people have had the wake, in various forms, and the sharing of refreshments afterwards.
“In older times, there were many rituals and practices around Irish wakes and funerals. People would ritually smoke clay pipes at wakes, professional mourners or ‘keeners’ were hired to cry over the dead and there were even ‘wake games’ played to keep mourners awake as they sat up with the corpse.
“These customs have fallen away and, while the Irish funeral is more sombre now than it was in older times, it differs little from the past where prayers were said, refreshments were provided, alcohol may have been served, and stories and occasional laughter were welcome,” she explains.
With Covid-19, neither the wake nor the sharing of food and drink were permitted.
“The wake — that allows time spent with the body — can help in the grieving process. The substantial funeral service and burial, with the time taken and numbers involved, are all curtailed. After the burial, time taken to share food with neighbours and friends is no longer allowable,” states Dr McGarry.
Proving the importance of funerals to Irish people is the fact that you don’t just attend funerals of people you know, “there is an unspoken rule that you attend funerals of those closely related to people you know too”.
Case Study: ‘I lost six people this year — I couldn’t even say goodbye to my own mother’
Niall Lynch lost six people this year, including his mother, Ursula Lynch, 93.
She died at the height of lockdown which meant he was unable to see her in the weeks leading up to her death.
It also meant his wife and children had to wait in the car outside the church during his mother’s funeral mass.
Several days later his wife’s father would pass away too, still in lockdown, so it was now Niall who would be watching the funeral on his phone in the car outside the church.
“My mother had dementia, she was in a nursing home in Navan, she died April 6. Vascular dementia shuts down different functions, and her swallow function shut down, so she hadn’t eaten solids in a week. This was the second or third time this happened in nine months, and at 93 you can’t survive too many bouts like that.
“It was in lockdown and my sister was able to visit her through the window, but my mother couldn’t really see her because she had limited eyesight. Then my sister was with her for the last hour, by her side. They called her and said: ‘You’d better get here’.
They met her at the front door of the nursing home, gowned her, and she was given 60 minutes with my mother. She couldn’t touch her. They were being super careful,” says Niall.
Niall last saw his mother on March 13, the day after the first tranche of government restrictions were announced.
So when Ursula passed away on April 6, the full lockdown had been enforced and his family was left grappling with manoeuvring itself through different counties and Government restrictions.
Niall was stopped four times by gardaí on the way to his 93-year-old mother’s funeral.
“It was strange at first, you’re trying to get your head around things and calculate this and that and where can we go, what are we allowed to do. The funeral home was open for max an hour, you had to stay your distance – all the usual stuff you now take for granted was granted.
“And we were travelling from Cavan to Meath, so we worried about that and being stopped by the guards. So I said: ‘I’ll keep RIP up on my phone if guards stop us’, and they did. We were stopped four times and they saw us as a family dressed up,” explains Niall.
Niall was able to see his mother in the funeral home before her mass, and his children were too, so everyone was able to say their goodbyes.
“Just to be able to do that little thing,” says Niall.
As lockdown was so new and so little was known about the spread of the virus, extreme caution was taken, meaning that when Ursula’s coffin arrived at the church, the front door was not open.
“The undertaker had to rap the door and the priest opened the door and said it was locked because he had to make sure it was no one else and that’s why he had it bolted. Only 10 of us were allowed in and I had to give the undertaker a list of those people and he showed it to priest who kept a record.
“The priest led us in and it was quite strange – this large open church with galleries upstairs it was like sitting in the Gaiety with 10 people and you could see the emptiness,” says Niall.
Ursula had six children, meaning there wasn’t room for sons and daughters-in-law, nor grandchildren.
My wife and children sat in the car park and watched it on the parish webcam.
One thing that Niall missed was the Navan tradition of neighbours and friends gathering for the “big old chat in the chapel yard”.
“You’d look forward to that, that was all gone. Now you’re reading comments on RIP and it was just ‘goodbye old neighbours’ and that was as close as you got to locals coming up to you in the chapel yard saying that your mother was an ‘auld native’ and that she was a ‘good one’. My mother would have loved that,” says Niall.
At the graveside, cousins gathered, but again everyone kept their physical distance and as soon as his mother Ursula was buried “there was nothing after that,” as everyone went their separate ways.
Ten days later, Niall’s father-in-law, Tom White, 88, died unexpectedly. He had been up and about walking at home, when he developed a chest infection.
He ended up in hospital but it was arranged that two of his family members could go on a rota and be with him for the last two days of his life.
“They all got to see him, and one of them got to be with him when he died,” explains Niall.
This funeral was a “rural affair” and “people lined the roadsides” as his coffin passed. Again, the 10-mourner rule applied as Tom died on April 15, however, there were far more than 10 in his family as he was survived by his wife Teresa, 10 children and 24 grandchildren.
“I remember the undertaker saying: ‘Between you and me I think I’ve let 11 in’,” says Niall.
At Tom’s graveside, with everyone dotted around with two metres apart, about 19 of his grandchildren joined together in song and sang as his coffin was lowered into the ground.
Niall would attend four more funerals, his aunt, a daughter of a very good friend of his and two first cousins, Declan Reilly, 60, of Swords, Co Dublin, and PJ Lynch, 74, of Clontarf and Artane, Co Dublin.
“We used to check in with each other all the time, we were the three from the three different families that always touched base with each other,” explains Niall.
Both of those funerals took place during the Level 5 restrictions.
Niall has seen both the good and bad in 2020.
“What we used to dissipate our grief with was company and chat and ritual and we’ve not been able to do that, but on the other hand, and it’s strange to say it, but it has been a kind of a gift. We’ve been forced into a space we might not otherwise have allowed ourselves to have – to sit back and contemplate,” believes Niall.
The good and the bad aside, Covid-19 has taught him to express any love or gratitude he has for a person, before it’s too late.
“Too much loss and lack of memory and ‘biting of the holy cords atwain’ is going to affect us all for years. Who knows for the better or the worse? So I know that every phone call I make is a must. I don’t want to lose anyone else without saying ‘I love you, I’m grateful for knowing you, you made a difference’ in whatever way I can say it and without delay.
“Because all we have right now is now. We can only hope that [a life] lived well, will carry us through to some friendlier place. We may someday be grateful, even, for what changes Covid-19 wrought in us”.
Case Study: She mouthed ‘I love you’, and she was gone
Margaret Kelly lost her mother Mary O’Connor (née Duggan), 89, on October 6.
Mary, raised in Frankfield View on the Old Youghal Road, had been living on Capwell Road until her death.
However, Mary, who loved company and “out”, moved in with Margaret for the duration of lockdown.
“Mum lived on her own, but she lived with me and my husband and daughter for March and April, we had her for 12 weeks, it’s a blessing. I finished up work on Tuesday and collected her on the Tuesday evening.
“Her biggest thing was loneliness. She said to me: ‘If I don’t die of Covid I would have died of loneliness’.
“I live in Carrignavar, and we would drive down to the end of the road and she would walk that park every single day during lockdown, it was 350 steps but that was a huge deal to her.
“My husband and I would get up and have breakfast and take the dogs out. When we’d come home, she’d be sitting waiting with her coat on to go for that walk,” explains Margaret.
Unfortunately Mary took a fall on May 23, which resulted in a hip replacement. Mary was taken to hospital by army personnel and because she had been watching the news every night with Margaret and her family, she was well aware of what was ahead of her in terms of no visitors.
Mary recovered from her hip operation and returned home to her own house.
However, in October, she fell ill.
“In October she wasn’t feeling well. My son used to take her out every single Friday for lunch. She loved out, if you were getting the car NCT-ed she’d go with you.
“She was ages opening the front door and this was unusual, when my son got in, she just collapsed into his arms. That was a Friday and she passed on the Tuesday, she was brought into the Mercy Hospital and I got a phone call to say there was no hope, she had pneumonia,” says Margaret.
The fact that it early October, meant that the country was neither in Level 5 restrictions, nor lockdown, so Margaret was able to be with her mother as she passed.
The hospital was also very quiet, so they had peace of mind when visiting Mary.
Margaret describes the experience of her mother’s passing as both “beautiful” and something she is extremely grateful for.
My mum wasn’t talking but she was rubbing our hands and our faces and blowing kisses – that was her down to the ground.
“I said: ‘Mam you need to go, don’t be hanging on for us’, and with that she mouthed: ‘I love you’ and she was gone. There was no drama. It was beautiful and we were with her,” says Margaret.
“My mum’s own mum died when she was six weeks old, and she always had one dream in life and that was to meet her own mother, and at nearly 90, it was still always at the back of her mind. The fact that she was finally going to meet her mum gave us great solace,” she adds.
For the funeral, only 25 people were allowed into the church, but something special happened after the mass, that eased the restrictions.
“When we came out of the church and passed mam’s house, all the neighbours were out. The older people are so respectful and they all had their hands clasped, it was all people could do,” says Margaret.
Although losing her mother during 2020 was “not ideal”, gratitude is one of her overriding feelings.
“It wasn’t ideal, but we are so grateful to the Mercy. We didn’t take being with her for granted, and it has to be said because there are so many people out there who didn’t have that,” says Margaret.
Mary O’Connor was predeceased by her beloved husband Finbarr of 48 years. She is survived by her children Donal, Norma and Margaret, and her four grandchildren Yvonne, Darren, Graham and Leanne.
‘We can’t stay in touch on Zoom, it’s taking away our humanity’
For the first time in human history, in peacetime, we saw funerals physically banned in some countries, and heavily restricted in others.
But marking death and respecting the dead is what makes us human, and what makes us different from every other species on earth.
It is this basic fact that makes funerals extremely significant, says UCC professor of sociology Arpad Szakolczai. His work focuses on social theory, historical sociology, and political anthropology — the scientific study of humanity.
“The origin of human culture is related to burial, marking the dead makes us humans, burials go back half a million years,” says Prof Szakolczai.
“Remembering the dead and burying the dead, is one of the main, if not the most important source of human culture.”
Any time in human history when the dead have not been respected was a sign of breakdown in culture.
“The Iliad ends with Hector humiliating the dead body of an enemy — this is never appropriate,” says Prof Szakolczai.
But in 2020 terms, and in peacetime, he feels strongly about the impact of restrictions on rituals surrounding death.
“Prohibiting burial rituals, not taking proper care of the dead, is a very serious issue,” says the professor.
There are other factors around death, aside from the funeral itself, that have been affected by Covid-19 restrictions.
“Dying at home or with family was the normal condition for humans — that was the way of saying farewell to the dead,” said Prof Szakolczai.
“To discontinue these rituals — I don’t agree at all, it disrupts customs and family ties.”
While this did not happen in Ireland during the pandemic, some funerals were banned in their entirety to stop the spread of Covid-19 in other countries.
Prof Szakolczai describes this practice as “quasi- apocalyptic”.
“Death was also about the departing soul being given some kind of rest. What happens to people who are not buried properly? It’s quasi-apocalyptic, it’s not an enlightened condition.
“There is a problem that we don’t take care of the dead.”
In Ireland in particular, out of many countries in the world, funeral and burial rituals have all been “preserved in an exemplary manner”.
“It’s an important custom that has stayed on, but now it’s interrupted,” says Prof Szakolczai.
However, we have been able to attend people’s funerals virtually. Does this not go some way to creating ritual around death?
Prof Szakolczai says “virtual reality” is not a real connection, and our physical presence is most important when it comes to death.
“Virtual reality — that’s another kind of issue, the importance of presence and concreteness cannot be underestimated when it comes to death,” he says. “Virtual reality is the elimination of presence and the delusion of family ties, that’s not a real connection.
“You can’t spread holy water through the internet.”
Physical presence is fundamental to our humanity, states the professor.
“It’s nonsense that we can stay in touch on Zoom, it’s taking away our humanity. It’s an extremely serious issue.
“We are human, we are not competitors of artificial intelligence.”
With all the advances in science and proliferation of knowledge, death still remains “this big mystery” to human beings.
“We don’t have a scientific answer about what survives after death, and this is what human beings have always thought about, it has never gone away,” says Prof Szakolczai.
Many anthropologists consider death, not birth, the most important turning point of human life.
Birth is an event, and it is hugely significant for the parents, but there are very few memories associated with the new life.
Death is the opposite.
“Birth involves a limited number of people, and there are not many memories when a new born baby is very little,” says Szakolczai. “However, when someone dies, everything that person lived through and who they interacted with come together.
“Death and funeral rituals show that we care about us, family and friends and colleagues and people. It’s crucial to keeping society together, and it is among the most important rituals for human life — and that [belief] is shared by historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists.”
Prof Szakolczai says he hopes that the interruption of social practices, such as funerals, and the disruption of human relations, through social distancing, will not continue for much longer.
“We shouldn’t get used to this, that’s the point. If a generation is brought up like this, what is the effect?”
Last February, Nancy Chouinard took her father out to dinner. Two months later the world had changed, and her dad, Norman Ginstling, passed away alone in a hospital.
The funeral was held over Zoom. There was nobody at the grave. “I feel like the grief process has completely been delayed,” Nancy said. “When it ended, you just shut your computer. And that was it. You’re back in your life.”
Watch the animated story below:
Norman was born on July 4, 1935, and grew up in New York. He was a private pilot, an accountant and a jazz lover, and kept very involved in the lives of his children and grandchildren. Since his death, over 285,000 more Americans have died of covid-19.
I think that when things go back to normal, I’ll miss him more.
Nancy spoke with us in early October from her home in Maryland, in a conversation for this animated story.
Hours before the grandfather died on a COVID-19 hospital floor, his closest kin entered the room two at a time, all covered in protective gowns, gloves, masks and face shields.
Barely breathing, the family patriarch pointed to each of his loved ones, then to his heart, and raised a fist in the air.
This was not how relatives had envisioned their last moments with 68-year-old Rubén Beltrán of northwest suburban Hanover Park, one of more than 12,000 lives lost to the new virus in Illinois and 1.4 million worldwide.
“But it was a blessing that we were able to say goodbye,” said granddaughter Amairani Jarvis, who planned Beltrán’s funeral in November. “Because I know a lot of people are dying alone right now, and they’re not allowed to say goodbyes to their loved ones.”
Just as the pandemic has altered so many aspects of life, it has also disrupted the experience of death and grieving. In response, mourners are creating new and innovative ways to honor the dying and departed while keeping within the bounds of pandemic protocols.
Many of these adaptations draw on cultural customs and ancient religious rites, said Roy Grinker, an anthropology professor at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who is co-leading a yearlong study on changes in funeral practices during the pandemic.
“There’s an extraordinary resilience and creativity of people to figure out how to do what they need to do in order to mourn, in order to grieve,” Grinker said.
A Muslim funeral director in Australia began giving out smaller bottles of perfume used during the ritual shrouding of a body, because the smell was such a powerful connection to the dead. She explained how family members would traditionally wash and shroud their loved one, but when this practice was interrupted by the pandemic, next-of-kin expressed difficulty coming to terms with the loss, sometimes wondering if their parent or spouse or sibling had even died. The familiar fragrance helped the grieving process.
“They could then use that as a very sensory way of remembering their loved one,” the funeral director said during a virtual roundtable discussion on the impact of COVID-19 regulations on death and dying.
In upstate New York, a funeral director commemorated the life of a beloved football coach by sending whistles to mourners, a tactile and aural reminder of the deceased. At a funeral in Oklahoma, clear masks enabled mourners who were deaf to read lips and see facial expressions.
In another case the anthropologists studied, around 100 people attended a funeral but only 10 were permitted at the gravesite; the other 90 friends and family members stayed out of the cemetery but climbed a fence lining the perimeter, to view and be a part of the moment the coffin was lowered into the ground, Grinker recounted.
Loss and healing rely in so many ways on the five senses. The sight of a body at an open-casket funeral. The scent of flowers at a memorial. The taste of certain foods while sitting shiva, in the tradition of Jewish mourning. The comforting melody of dirges and chanting. An embrace in shared grief.
There is a near-universal need for communal mourning, which becomes increasingly difficult with physical distance requirements, said Grinker, who was born and raised in Chicago.
“Whatever religion, whatever tradition we’re talking about, one of the common threads is the difficulty of not being able to be with others in large groups, to touch each other and to stimulate each other’s emotional release,” he said.
For the study, called Rituals in the Making, researchers are interviewing clergy, funeral directors and mourners; the project was funded by the National Science Foundation and is expected to be complete in May.
“We’re doing these things in different ways than we did before,” he said. “We are still trying to manage this important transition in social life, where we need to not only deal with our own emotional concerns but also have to carry out the cultural practices of transitioning somebody from the world of the living to the world of the dead.”
Disconnect from death
The Beltrán family gathered for the visitation on Nov. 13 at Symonds-Madison Funeral Home in Elgin. Everyone donned black masks bearing the inscription “forever in our heart” in gold letters.
The message professed their eternal love for the deceased. The material served as a tangible defense against the virus that Beltrán had battled for a month, before his lungs collapsed and he could no longer breathe on his own.
The colors matched the black and gold urn holding his cremated remains. A Spanish version of the mask, “siempre en nuestro corazón,” was sent to Beltrán’s relatives in Mexico, along with a small packet of his ashes to be scattered near the home where he was born and raised.
“We gave him a pretty good farewell,” Jarvis said. “We sent him to Mexico, gave him a celebration here. We did it to the best of our ability.”
Daniel Symonds, a second-generation funeral director who arranged Beltrán’s services, fears for the emotional burden of those left behind when they aren’t able to grieve in a typical manner.
He recounts a group of siblings who lost a brother early in the pandemic. Another sibling was high-risk for contracting the virus, so they decided to pay for a memorial and have the body cremated, but wait to hold services until they could gather safely.
That memorial still hasn’t happened. Symonds worries that this family and others in a similar state of limbo won’t be able to process their loss or begin healing.
“When you can’t see them, you can’t say goodbye to them, that causes guilt, anger sadness, frustration, depression,” he said. “We are a communal society. That’s something we need to get through the pain.”
Narratives on social media sites offer a glimpse at some of the heartache of survivors who feel a disconnection from death.
A Texas woman on the website Reddit recalled how her 93-year-old mother-in-law died of COVID-19 without any loved ones by her hospital bedside.
“My mother-in-law created a huge family, she dedicated her life to all these offspring and remembered everyone’s birthdays and loved catching up on family news good and bad,” the comment said. “And she was there alone — probably the first time in her life she’d been alone. … This is not what she deserved.”
A New York rabbi posted on Twitter in April about presiding over the burial of 95-year-old Holocaust survivor. The rabbi explained that under normal circumstances, members of Jewish burial societies would have come to perform tahara, a ritual cleansing of the body.
“It is the most dedicated and conscious act, to perform these rites,” the rabbi said. “Not this day. Tahara is not happening. It’s not safe. Typically the body is watched until burial. Guarded by members of the community. Her son called me heartbroken. … No guard. Her body, like ours is to be alone.”
Since then, various Jewish burial societies have created virtual components of the ritual or modifications designed to minimize exposure, like misting the body instead of washing, and integrating strict rules for infection control as well as use of personal protective equipment.
The modified version used by a Jewish burial society in Boston includes the prayer: We ask your forgiveness for any distress we may cause you during this tahara, most of all for the ways in which we have had to modify the ritual preparation of your body for its final journey. … During this time of plague that besets and endangers all, the changes we make are an affirmation of the life you have lived and the lives of those who care for you now.
Present, at a distance
There’s a certain closure in viewing a final resting place.
Until Jarvis saw her grandfather’s ashes lowered into the ground, she didn’t quite believe he was gone.
Beltrán, a cancer survivor, had been in and out of the hospital for years even before he contracted COVID-19. Until the interment, Jarvis kept thinking her grandfather was just hospitalized like before and would be coming home again soon.
Days before services, the arrangements had to be revamped due to rapidly evolving limits on gatherings amid a surge of COVID-19 cases. Only 10 relatives were permitted at the gravesite, a difficult mandate for the large, tight-knit clan. Beltrán was survived by his wife of 48 years, six children, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“My family was upset,” Jarvis said. “But we all understood what the regulations were. We all understood why. We had just gone through that with my grandfather. It started with COVID. COVID took his life.”
To be safer, some funerals have begun integrating cars into the service, a modern twist to preserve ancient customs or accommodate big crowds.
A funeral director in Washington state recalled a March burial for a grandmother who just arrived months ago from Ukraine; the family longed for an open-casket service, a cultural tradition, so the funeral home arranged for an open coffin viewing in its van at a site a near the cemetery, encircled by the cars of loved ones to maintain some privacy.
“It wasn’t what they wanted — it wasn’t what they ever would have envisioned — but it was something,” the funeral director said.
A funeral home in Texas recently built a drive-in funeral theater, where services on a large outdoor screen are viewed by relatives and friends from their parked cars.
“This also allows the family to feel the love and support they need at a time of loss and grief,” the funeral home’s website said. “The service concludes with three honks representing comfort, support and love as they drive away.”
A large part of the George Washington University study examines how traditional death rituals are being transformed into virtual practices, from “Zoom funerals” to video-recorded memorials to livestreamed visitations.
Results have been mixed. Some mourners said glitches and Wi-Fi outages compromised the occasion; there were instances where the grieving reported clicking on a link that took them to the wrong funeral or memorial, Grinker said.
In other cases, virtual rituals were surprisingly gratifying — even rivaling traditional in-person rites and practices.
Screens helped Grinker, the anthropologist, navigate his own grief earlier in the pandemic after his 95-year-old mother died of natural causes in Chicago. The family held a virtual memorial, the first time Grinker’s 93-year-old father ever spoke to anyone using a computer.
The online gathering allowed more people across the country to mourn together, he said, expanding his father’s opportunity to celebrate his mother’s life.
“It was actually quite emotionally powerful for him in a way I think it perhaps wouldn’t have been if people had been able to visit at the house,” Grinker said. “It’s about creating social bonds. These are times when we reaffirm our relationships. And if we can’t do that, it makes us feel all the more isolated.”
As for Jarvis, she described feelings of guilt that she was among the 10 relatives standing at the gravesite, potentially taking the place of another relative during that pivotal moment of interment.
To help include everyone, she created a Facebook page with photos and a livestream of Beltrán’s funeral. Relatives across the country and in Mexico were able to pray along with the funeral Mass and see the gravesite immediately, an experience the family wouldn’t have thought to create if it weren’t for the pandemic.
“We were able to make people present, while still keeping distance,” she said.
A growing number of South Korean women are training to be morticians, a field from which they had long been excluded, amid changing views on gender roles and a rising preference for women’s bodies to be handled by women.
With recent deaths of female celebrities and prominent figures, as well as growing scrutiny of sex crimes against women, gender sensitivity is changing the way families of the deceased bid farewell to their grandmothers, mothers and daughters.
“I felt uncomfortable when my classmates of a different sex touched my body, even when I was fully dressed,” said Park Se-jung, 19, who is in her second year of funeral directing studies. “I sure wouldn’t want them to touch, wash and dress my naked body even if I were dead. I am determined I should be the one bidding those women a proper farewell.”
The trend comes amid growing calls for crackdowns of sexual violence against women, including a rash of hidden-camera crimes, “revenge porn”, and online networks that blackmailed women and girls into sharing sexual and sometimes violent images of themselves.
In the early 2000s, about a third of mortician students in the country were women, but today they make up around 60% of the class, said Lee Jong-woo, a professor of embalming at Eulji University in Seongnam near Seoul.
“With Confucian ideology, death was considered a taboo in South Korea in the past, and had negative perceptions of whether women could handle such work, but the perception has been changing,” Lee said.
Funeral companies say they have been receiving more requests for female morticians.
“Most of the deaths of young people are suicides, and the families of the bereaved, especially if it was suicide and a woman, feel more comfortable if we handle the body,” said Park Bo-ram, a funeral director of seven years.
“I recall a teenaged student, an only child … had committed suicide,” Park said. “Washing and dressing the body, I saw many signs of self-injury on her thigh, but none of her family knew.”
Park recalls that the girl’s parents were immensely grateful, even in the midst of sadness, that a female mortician handled their daughter’s body.
South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest in the developed world: 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, compared with an OECD average of 11.3. That year, it was the No. 1 cause of death among teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s.
More than 4,000 women committed suicide in 2019, including young female K-pop artists Koo Hara and Sulli.
In 2016, a quarter of the country’s 6,200 funeral directors were women, and with more than 130,000 girls and women dying each year, requests for female funeral directors are expected to rise further, Korea Employment Information Service said.
Yet some resistance to women in the mortuary business remains.
Shin Hwa-jin, 21, who plans to work at a funeral home after graduation, said she was shocked to hear a female mortician relate a conversation with her mother-in-law.
“Her mother-in-law asked her: ‘How dare you think of cooking my meals with the hands that touched a dead body?’” she said.