A Virtual Memorial for Those We’ve Lost

The special project “What Loss Looks Like” presents personal artifacts belonging to those who have left us and explores what they mean to those left behind.

Readers submitted photos of items that reminded them of loved ones who died in the past year.

By Jaspal Riyait

As the art director of the Well desk, I’ve spent the last year looking for images to reflect the devastation of the pandemic and the grief it has wrought. As the crisis has stretched on, I’ve thought of all the people who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 — not to mention those who have lost loved ones, period — and how they were cut off from the usual ways of gathering and grieving. Watching the numbers rise every day, it was easy to lose sight of the people behind the statistics. I wanted to find a way to humanize the death toll and re-establish the visibility of those who had died.

To help our readers honor the lives of those lost during the pandemic, we decided to ask them to submit photographs of objects that remind them of their loved ones. The responses were overwhelming, capturing love, heartache and remembrance. We heard from children, spouses, siblings, grandchildren and friends — people who had lost loved ones not only to Covid-19 but from all manner of causes. What united them was their inability to mourn together, in person.

Dani Blum, Well’s senior news assistant, spent hours speaking with each individual by phone. “It’s the hardest reporting I’ve ever done, but I feel really honored to be able to tell these stories,” she said. “What struck me the most about listening to all of these stories was how much joy there was in remembering the people who died, even amid so much tragedy. Many of these conversations would start in tears and end with people laughing as they told me a joke the person they lost would tell, or their favorite happy memory with them.”

The photographs and personal stories, published digitally as an interactive feature, was designed by Umi Syam and titled “What Loss Looks Like.” Among the stories we uncovered: A ceremonial wedding lasso acts as a symbol of the unbreakable bond between a mother and father, both lost to Covid-19 and mourned by their children. A ceramic zebra figurine reminds one woman of her best friend, who died after they said a final goodbye. A gold bracelet that belonged to a father never leaves his daughter’s wrist because she is desperate for any connection to his memory.

For those who are left behind, these items are tangible daily reminders of those who have departed. These possessions hold a space and tell a story. Spend time with them and you begin to feel the weight of their importance, the impact and memory of what they represent.

Museums have long showcased artifacts as a connection to the past. So has The New York Times, which published a photo essay in 2015 of objects collected from the World Trade Center and surrounding area on 9/11. As we launched this project, we heard from several artists who, in their own work, explored the connection between objects and loss.

Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, Elisabeth Smolarz, an artist in Queens, began working on “The Encyclopedia of Things,” which examines loss and trauma through personal objects. Kija Lucas, a San Francisco-based artist, has been photographing artifacts for the past seven years, displaying her work in her project “The Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy.”

Saved: Objects of the Dead” is a 12-year project by the artist Jody Servon and the poet Lorene Delany-Ullman, in which photographs of personal objects from deceased loved ones are paired with prose to explore the human experience of life, death and memory. And the authors Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax spent years interviewing hundreds of people and asking them about the most meaningful single object in their lives, gathering their stories in the book “What We Keep.”

As the pandemic continues to grip the nation, the Well desk will continue to wrestle with the large-scale grief that it leaves in its wake. Other features on this topic include resources for those who are grieving, the grief that’s associated with smaller losses, and how grief affects physical and psychological health. As for “What Loss Looks Like,” we are keeping the callout open, inviting more readers to submit objects of importance, to expand and grow this virtual memorial and provide a communal grieving space.

Complete Article HERE!

More pregnant women died and stillbirths increased steeply during the pandemic, studies show.

A nurse helping a pregnant woman at a hospital in Paris last November.

By Apoorva Mandavilli

More pregnant women died, experienced complications or delivered stillborn babies during the pandemic than in previous years, according to an analysis of 40 studies in 17 countries published on Wednesday in the journal Lancet Global Health.

Pregnant women face a heightened risk of severe illness and death if infected with the coronavirus. But the researchers, in Turkey and the United Kingdom, wanted to assess collateral damage from the pandemic on pregnancy and delivery, and so excluded from their analysis those studies that focused only on pregnant women who were infected.

Reviewing data on more than six million pregnancies, the investigators found evidence that disruptions to health care systems and patients’ fear of becoming infected at clinics may have led to avoidable deaths of mothers and babies, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

Data from a dozen studies showed that the chances of a stillbirth increased by 28 percent. And the risk of women dying while pregnant or during childbirth increased by more than a third in two countries: Mexico and India. A subset of studies that assessed mental health showed that postpartum depression and anxiety were also heightened during the pandemic.

Nearly six times as many women needed surgery for ectopic pregnancies — in which a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus — during the pandemic than before. Ectopic pregnancies can be treated with medications if detected early, so the results suggest that the surgeries may have resulted from delays in care.

The analysis did not find differences in other conditions associated with pregnancy, like gestational diabetes or high blood pressure, or in the rates of cesarean sections or induced labor.

The rates of preterm birth also did not change significantly during the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries. But in high-income countries, preterm births fell by nearly 10 percent.

The drop may be a result of changes in health care delivery and in pregnant women’s behavior during the pandemic, the researchers said, indicating that the pandemic has exacerbated disparities between low- and high-income countries.

Complete Article HERE!

Last Responders Comfort Others, While Managing Their Own Grief

by Lindsay Wilson

When Tom Belford’s mother died in May, her family was faced with the impossible task of limiting her funeral to 10 people. Belford, who is the owner and funeral director of John. A Gentleman Mortuaries and Crematory, recalled the difficult months leading up to his mother’s death.

“From March until May nobody was allowed in the building, and she was on the second floor. So we couldn’t go up to the window or anything,” he said.

The end of a life is a difficult time under any circumstances, but COVID-19 has made grieving even more difficult.

“COVID is taking people suddenly, and it’s affecting the families that have suffered, that go through a death at a time where maybe they shouldn’t,” Belford said.

Belford said in many cases families are losing people who are in their 50s and 60s due to complications from the virus.

“We’re here to help them make that first step back to a normal life after suffering a loss,” he said.

Chapel, 1010 N. 72nd St location (Real Yellow Pages)

John. A Gentleman has seen a steady number of virus-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, from March or April through today. Though numbers in Omaha aren’t what New York City or cities in California are seeing, deaths have risen from this time last year, according to last responders such as Belford.

Though the increase in business has been a change, the way Belford and his staff handle virus-related deaths has stayed the same.

“We practice something called universal precautions. We treat everyone as if they had COVID.”

These precautions, which include personal protective equipment used for both funeral directors and the deceased they are working with, have kept Belford’s staff safe since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We don’t treat anybody differently because they had COVID,” he said.

While the practices in caring for the deceased haven’t changed, funeral services have changed, in some cases dramatically, due to the virus.

“The biggest changes we see in the services is the social distancing,” Belford said. “For a while, the services were limited.”

Casket selection, 7010 N. 72nd St location (Real Yellow Pages)

Many churches and chapels continue to limit the capacity of funerals for everyone’s safety. In response to this, John. A. Gentleman has broadened its focus to include videocasting of services for loved ones who are unable to make it to the service.

“Before this started, we had one or two cameras for filming services,” Belford said. “We have six or seven now.”

Recorded services are helpful to many family members, but one important aspect of support is still missing.

“The families,” Belford explained, “they can’t socialize and get the support from their friends. And that’s probably the biggest disappointment families will see. Our interactions are the same. The care we give them is the same. But the care they get from their friends is different.”

Limiting social contact in a time of grief also directly curtails the level of support families would normally receive at the funeral and beyond. John A. Gentleman had to pause its bereavement programs due to the virus, though they recently started back up.

Many families are postponing memorial services for their deceased loved ones until after the virus is under better control. In March and April, some families planned to postpone services until summertime. But then those were pushed back, too. Some families are now pushing memorial services to summer 2021.

“Everybody’s pushing things back,” Belford said. “Hopefully the shots will come in and everybody will get vaccinated.”

Fortunately, Belford and his staff are currently on a waitlist for vaccinations and hope to receive their first shots in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, Belford is more careful to protect himself and his family from the virus than the average person.

“I wouldn’t say I’m freaked out, but I would say that I’m cautious.” Belford said. “I’m very cautious about where I go and what I do. I have a big bottle of sanitizer in my car.”

Note of thanks, photo from John A. Gentleman

Being a funeral director is a tradition that has passed down for three generations in Belford’s family. While the virus has changed the way he conducts his services, one tradition that remains is the mortuary’s memorial plantings at Lauritzen Gardens, which Belford said is part of the service for every funeral. But even that has been altered slightly. The dedications are now posted online.

The coronavirus has rendered many aspects of life a moving target, and for last responders, more changes are likely to come. However, Tom Belford is prepared to continue to adapt to support families even as his own family mourns their loss. “No matter what happens to people, we’re here to help them,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

Behind Closed Doors

— ‘the Difficulty and the Beauty’ of Pandemic Hospice Work

Javier Urrutia, a home hospice music therapist, celebrating Josniel Castillo’s 11th birthday in Queens.

“I did not really understand when people would ask, ‘Why me and why my family?’” a hospice chaplain said. “Now I was asking the same questions.”

By James Estrin

This year was different.

The coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed Ms. Saoui’s work as a home hospice nurse in New York. Safety precautions created a physical distance between her and her patients and even cut some of her hospice colleagues off from their clients’ homes altogether last year. It deprived families and caretakers of ways to grieve together, and confronted hospice workers, however familiar with death, with a staggering scale of loss.

Through all the pressures, Ms. Saoui and other workers continued to provide solace and even moments of happiness to dying patients and their families.

“You sit down and you listen,” she said. “They express their fear, they express their emotions, and you guide them and tell them what to expect.” After a patient dies, she added, “I often want to hug the family members, but I cannot do that now.”

Instead, Ms. Saoui said, “I pray and do the best I can.”

More than half a million Americans have died from the coronavirus, and many have died in pain, isolated from their families. Ms. Saoui contrasted those conditions with what she called a good death: “peaceful, pain-free, at home and surrounded by their loved ones.”

While nurses have continued in-person home visits, some chaplain, social work and therapy sessions moved online because families preferred it. By August, most of that care switched back to in-person visits but with strict precautions, including wearing full P.P.E. at times and keeping six feet apart whenever possible.

Ms. Saoui examining Pedro Torres, while his wife, Gloria, and his son, Darron, look on.
Ms. Saoui examining Pedro Torres, while his wife, Gloria, and his son, Darron, look on.

Though a vast majority of Ms. Saoui’s patients in the last year did not have the coronavirus when they entered hospice, challenging restrictions have been placed on all patients and caregivers. Home hospice care can last for many months, and workers often develop close relationships with patients and their families.

But the pandemic has meant fewer occasions for families — and hospice workers — to mourn together in person at funerals or memorial services. For over a year, the size of those gatherings has been strictly limited by many states to try to stem the spread of the virus.

Nurse Hanane Saoui visits Diane Wilcox at her home in Queens.
Nurse Hanane Saoui visits Diane Wilcox at her home in Queens.Credit…

When hospice patients die, their caretakers often work through their own grief and loss in weekly staff meetings and gatherings with colleagues who shared the same client. These staff meetings are now online, but the loss of being able to hold each other and shed tears together has deeply affected hospice workers, said Melissa Baguzis, a social worker who specializes in pediatric cases. She has developed her own ways to handle the loss of her young patients.

“I take a moment, light a candle and read their favorite book or listen to their favorite song,” she said. “I have my own time for them. We do become connected with their families, but when I’m in their houses, that is their grief and I’m going to support them. I need to process my own loss outside of that.”

A nurse, Ozail Bennett, dressing in protective equipment before going to see a home hospice patient that has the coronavirus. Mr. Bennett also contracted the virus last April.
A nurse, Ozail Bennett, dressing in protective equipment before going to see a home hospice patient that has the coronavirus. Mr. Bennett also contracted the virus last April.

The hospice workers in the MJHS Health System, a nonprofit that covers New York and Nassau County, are comfortable around death in a way that many Americans are not. But the pandemic has put an extra weight on them and their patients, Ms. Baguzis said. “We all share in each other’s grief now more than ever,” she said.

The Rev. Christopher Sigamoney, an Episcopal priest who is a hospice chaplain, said he has tried to be there for his patients “even with their frustration, anger, hopelessness, depression and anxiety.”

Father Christopher Sigamoney talks with Joseph Lai.
Father Christopher Sigamoney talks with Joseph Lai.

He often told patients’ family members that it was “OK to be angry at God” over the loss of their loved one. But he said that the death of a beloved cousin from the coronavirus had changed his understanding of his work.

Father Sigamoney and his family were unable to be with his cousin, a retired doctor visiting from India, during the three days while she was on a ventilator in the hospital at the end of her life. He and a handful of relatives said “a few prayers” in the funeral home, he said, but they were unable to have a “proper burial” or ship the body home to India because of virus restrictions.

Father Christopher Sigamoney prays with patient Diane Wilcox at her home in Queens.
Father Christopher Sigamoney prays with patient Diane Wilcox at her home in Queens.

“I did not really understand when people would ask, ‘Why me and why my family?’” he said of the time before his cousin’s death. “Now I was asking the same questions. I said to God, ‘Now I’m angry at you, and I hope you can forgive me.’” Father Sigamoney said he was slowly recovering through prayer and helping his patients.

Last month, Josniel Castillo was hooked up to a battery of medical machines and monitors, surrounded by his parents and a multitude of stuffed animals, as Javier Urrutia, a music therapist, and Ms. Baguzis entered his cramped bedroom. Despite his declining medical condition because of a rare genetic disease, this was a happy day. It was Josniel’s 11th birthday.

Mr. Urrutia launched into “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song. Josniel’s mother and father, Yasiri Caraballo and Portirio Castillo, joined in. Ms. Caraballo wiped away tears. They were, she said, “tears of joy” because she had not expected her son would live to be 11.

She requested another tune, and played tambourine as Mr. Urrutia launched into “Que Bonita Es Esta Vida.” They sang the final chorus together, part of which can translate to:

Oh, this life is so beautiful

Though it hurts so much sometimes

And in spite of its sorrows

There’s always someone who loves us, someone who takes care of us.

Afterward, Mr. Urrutia said most people are “unaware of what’s happening behind closed doors, both the difficulty and the beauty.”

Melissa Baguzis, a MJHS hospice social worker, visiting Josniel Castillo on his 11th birthday.
Melissa Baguzis, a MJHS hospice social worker, visiting Josniel Castillo on his 11th birthday.

This year in countless homes, there has been “a lot of pain and suffering, it cannot be denied,” he said. But in hospice work, he said, “you also see all of the heroes out there doing the simple things of life, caring for each other. The husband taking care of his wife or the mother taking care of her son.”

“Dying is a part of life,” he added. “Only living things die.”

Complete Article HERE!

Every time one of my patients dies I buy a plant in their memory

Every time a patient passed away, I’d go to the garden centre and search either for a plant with their name or for a plant I thought represented them

By Katie Hodgkinson

When I started work as a doctor two years ago, I was living alone with one sad succulent and a pot of thorn-filled roses my boyfriend had given me.

I’d always liked plants, but I’d never been able to keep anything alive longer than a few weeks – in fact, my dad had been watering our fake one for years!

On my first rotation, I started on a combined cardiology and stroke ward, which, as you can imagine, sees quite a few patients with life-changing conditions. I’d made friends with one of the hospital palliative care sisters and she often came to help us with patients who were experiencing breathlessness, pain and agitation.

The first woman I met in a hospice, when told she’d have weeks to live, was insistent that the only thing she wanted to achieve in her remaining time was to ‘see the flowers bloom in spring’.

The staff bought her bulbs, and I’m told she lived long enough to see the first ones flower. It really struck me that after a lifetime in this world, the thing that mattered most to her was seeing the colours and life that comes with a new season – I’d never really thought of plants in that way before.

In my first few weeks, I started to develop relationships with some of our longer-term patients. There was one woman who I took blood from every morning and for whom I requested countless tests, scans and meetings.

Her family weren’t local, and we’d often share a giggle over the comings and goings of other women in her bay; I ended up being her most regular visitor.

One weekend I checked her blood results to see what we’d really been hoping not to see – she’d grown a nasty bacteria in her blood, and would need at least a further five weeks of antibiotics.

Sadly, we never managed to get on top of the infection. We gave her stronger drugs, blood transfusions and called her family in to be with her. She passed away peacefully, and that evening I went with the palliative care sister to a garden centre.

It was meant to just be an escape from long days on the ward and my first close patient death, but the centre had named all their plants – and when I saw one with her name on, it felt like some sort of sign. It was a bright and bold Calathea, with vibrant pink stripes that cheered me up instantly. I took it home with me.

Naturally in a busy city hospital, more of my patients died despite our best efforts. We brought in families, arranged a wedding for a terminally ill patient, and I even smuggled in someone’s new puppy inside my jacket (infection control approved, of course.)

I was 24 and seeing more death than most people see in a lifetime – but although it was horrible, it was also an honour to be a part of a team that could help these people have a good death.

No one wants to think of their life coming to an end, everyone wants to be comfortable and surrounded by the people they love, and it was so rewarding to be able to offer that.

Every time a patient passed away, I’d go to the garden centre and search either for a plant with their name or for a plant I thought represented them. I wanted to remember them.

I became better at looking after the plants in my flat. I developed a watering schedule, bought plant food, repotted them into pretty jars I’d found in shops, took them for showers if I thought they were dry – anything I could do to emulate the kind of care I was trying to give to my patients.

Most doctors have something they do to remember the people they’ve cared for – whether it’s lighting a candle, a quiet moment at the end of the day or debriefing with friends. I’ve heard of people planting trees – but I think individual plants might be one of the more unusual coping mechanisms!

When the pandemic hit, I was working in elective orthopaedics and my ward was the first to start accepting Covid-19 patients. Despite all the research, the treatment plans were often simple – oxygen, more oxygen, steroids and if needed, machines to take over breathing when patients became too tired.

We sent patients to ITU, and those who deteriorated we made comfortable. We took over the role of the families who weren’t allowed in, lest they put people in danger.

We held hands with patients while they passed away and we held up screens so their families could be there until the end. It was devastating knowing that pre-pandemic, we’d have had crowded side rooms filled with loved ones, and yet because of the risks they had me in full PPE, unable to even hold a hand without horrible sweaty gloves.

When I started my Covid-19 work I had about 15 plants and a watering can made out of an old sauce jar. Then garden centres closed in the first wave, but I ordered more plants online.

After eight months, I started to run out of room in my flat, and my friends suggested buying one plant per week rather than per patient. It didn’t feel right – not the level of acknowledgement I wanted for these people who had lived such full lives.

I started planting seeds, lighting, candles – anything I could to still feel like I was acknowledging the loss of so many people. I asked for help on Twitter, and people suggested planting trees, donating plants, getting an allotment – but none have felt quite right just yet. 

Thankfully I live alone, so the ever-expanding wave of greenery wasn’t too annoying – but I have started letting my fiance choose where we put some of them! It’s lovely to be surrounded by so much new life and I get so excited whenever I see a leaf start to unfurl – I am reminded every time to appreciate it by the woman who wanted to see the flowers bloom in spring. I like to think she’d be just as thrilled.

Now I work in a different hospital, and thankfully fewer people are dying. I’ve been able to propagate my existing plants to grow smaller baby plants for my friends.

I still have a plant for every patient who passed away while I was their doctor; it looks like I live in a jungle, with more than 60 plants, but I’m starting to prune and take cuttings so that other people can share the joy.

For some of my paediatric patients, I’ve decorated pots with stickers of their favourite things – Peppa Pig, octopi, even one covered in fingerpaint.

The time I spend looking after my plants has become the time when I can reflect on everything that’s happened and all the people I’ve cared for.

Sometimes it’s a sad experience, and sometimes it’s a more joyful process where I can think of those that got to go home.

I think of all the things I have yet to learn, how far I’ve come, and how many more patients I will get to meet. I think I’ll always dedicate a plant to a lost patient; I just might need to move to somewhere with a garden.

Complete Article HERE!

Plague & Prayer

— In the Midst of Pandemic Life, Religion is a Mixed Blessing

By

The coronavirus pandemic has now ravaged the globe for more than a year. It has brought with it myriad difficulties; despite the fact that many have been spared from the virus itself, no one has been immune to its economic and social consequences. This dimension of the pandemic’s impact has unmistakably revealed the disproportionate distribution of privilege and hardship in societies around the world, drawing much-needed attention to the ways in which COVID-19 has been experienced very differently by racialized and ethnic minorities, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and women.

But despite the factual relevance of race, gender, and socioeconomic status, these not the only factors with the potential to complicate pandemic life for people. In the Western world, where religion no longer plays a central role in public life, not much attention is paid to the experience of religious communities. Yet, faith has proven to have a powerful role in shaping pandemic life for believers worldwide, and while it has been a comfort to many, it is arguably a mixed blessing.  

Risks and rewards 

Given the communal aspect of most faiths, many believers have found themselves facing a difficult choice between honouring their sense of religious duty and following public health guidelines to protect their health and safety. Obviously, the degree to which this has become a reality for religious believers varies based on different religious customs regarding congregation, but, having to choose between one’s faith and, potentially, one’s life is no easy decision.

In some cases, religious communities have found ways to adapt to restrictions by holding faith services online. Religious researchers have noted that roughly two-thirds of practicing Christians in the United States are attending virtual church services during the pandemic. However, they also recorded a decline in religious participation among the same group: approximately one in three practicing Christians have stopped attending church during COVID-19. Some of those who continue to worship practices struggle with the inadequacy of online services, but nonetheless express a drive to “keep going.”

However, practitioners of certain other faiths — particularly Islam and Judaism — have, in many cases, struggled with an incompatibility between their religious practices and social distancing requirements. Measures implemented in response to the coronavirus have deeply disrupted Muslim rituals surrounding death and burial rites. Likewise, social distancing regulations conflict with many practices central to (ultra-)Orthodox Jewish life. In Orthodox communities in New York and Israel, devout Jews have defied gathering restrictions in order to attend the enormous wedding and funeral ceremonies that represent a foundational part of their culture and heritage. Attendance at such gatherings is, for many, both “a religious and personal duty.” 

Orthodox Jewish communities have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, and many have struggled to reconcile the congregation-centred aspects of their faith and culture with public health guidelines. “Man walking beside red wall photo

A UK study showed that coronavirus death rates were highest among Muslims, followed by those who identified as Jewish, Hindu, or Sikh. Christians had a significantly lower risk, while non-religious individuals had the lowest death rate of all surveyed groups. The researchers noted that these risk disparities could be largely attributed to differences in geographical location, socioeconomic status, and demographic and ethnic factors already linked to higher risk of COVID-19 mortality, and that these considerations could not provide a complete explanatory picture. It seems possible that differences in faith practices could perhaps play at least a minor role. Religious communities whose traditions tend to require mass gatherings could conceivably be more vulnerable to contagion and death.

Furthermore, there’s yet another risk — that of prejudice and division. The perception among the rest of society that members of religious communities are selfishly endangering others by defying restrictions in order to perform rites and duties of faith can breed resentment and deepen social divides. In New York, the government’s handling of the pandemic has largely failed to show sensitivity to the particular needs of the insular Orthodox Jewish communities there, deepening their distrust in civic administration. Efforts by these groups to uphold religious obligations and community life in spite of the pandemic has led to clashes with local government and resentment from fellow citizens. Meanwhile, in India, an outbreak of the virus at an Islamic religious conference in 2020 was followed by an outbreak of Islamophobia. Muslims became the increasingly ostracized targets of fake news claiming they were actively attempting to spread COVID-19. 

Yet, although religion has demonstrated the potential to complicate the pandemic life of its adherents in these various ways, it also brings courage and comfort to many in facing the hardships that the coronavirus has brought. For example, many religious Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia are turning to rituals, magical rites, prayer, and talismans to protect themselves against the virus. Turning to faith-based methods in combination with public health guidelines has provided comfort and relief from anxiety in the midst of the pandemic: for millions, faith can assuage fear and inspire hope and courage. There is also increasing research that supports the idea that faith can have powerful, positive effects on health, especially mental health.

Furthermore, while some like Esau McCaulley lament the loss of community and the irreplaceable experience of in-person worship, others voice enthusiasm for virtual services. A Lutheran pastor replied to McCaulley in The New York Times by pointing out that online worship can indeed provide a sense of unity and community, with the power to alleviate the isolation and loneliness most of the world currently finds itself in. Another reader celebrated the increased attendance her synagogue experienced after switching to online services. For some, the effort to find their version of divinity even in the absence of a tangible community may strengthen and deepen their sense of devotion both to their faith and to their fellow believers.

The responsibility of faith leaders

Given the ways in which religion can have an enormous impact on pandemic life, it’s clear that faith leaders have a lot of power and responsibility in terms of the guidance they offer to their followers during this troubled time.

Where religious leaders misuse their power, society at large suffers as a result. For instance, some evangelical ministers in the United States have established a reputation for denying or downplaying crucial information about the virus, encouraging their followers to put their faith in God rather than in scientific and medical experts, and refusing to suspend in-person services while denigrating those who have done so in compliance with social distancing guidelines. In-person religious gatherings can turn into super-spreader events, infecting not just religious believers, but also other members of society they may come into contact with afterwards.

The Dalai Lama is among the religious leaders who have shared messages of hope, compassion, and unity during the pandemic. “The Dalai Lama speaks at the NIH

However, other faith leaders around the world– including the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis— have demonstrated an understanding of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders, and have shared uplifting messages of courage, hope, and compassion with their followers while also praising medical workers and encouraging their communities to be patient, heed guidelines, get vaccinated, and listen to science. An interfaith conference of religious leaders in Indonesia demonstrated a heartening logic of cooperation in the face of challenges and awareness of faith’s powerful impact on society’s experience of pandemic life. While almost everyone has recognized the vital role played by political, scientific, and medical authorities as the world struggles to tackle the virus, perhaps we should also acknowledge that similarly, religious authorities have a significant impact. The messages they send to their followers play a role in determining whether and how the faithful will adapt their worship to comply with public health guidelines. Thus, while faith has a hand in how believers suffer and overcome the hardships of navigating an isolated world, it also affects public health, as the choices religious congregations make have far-reaching effects beyond their own communities. In one way or another, faith has the potential to affect believers and non-believers alike at this fraught moment in human history.

Complete Article HERE!

Death-oriented doc finds poetry amid pandemic

New Orleans’ famed jazz funerals a casualty of COVID-19

The documentary Death Is Our Business looks at how the pandemic altered jazz-funeral traditions in New Orleans.

By: David Zurawik

As we reached the one year mark this month of life under COVID-19, there has been no shortage of articles about how the virus has changed us. One of the most striking and still underappreciated ways it has done so is in our thinking as a society about death.

Prior to the pandemic, we were not a people who thought a lot about dying. I believe one of the primary reasons for that is that our popular culture, at least when it came to television, has generally avoided it.

One of the primary reasons for that: The commercial networks believed death was bad for business. I know that because multiple network executives have told me so over the years as if it were a truth handed down from a mountaintop on stone tablets, even though no one could supply research supporting that claim.

Death and destruction caused by COVID-19 have changed that situation dramatically, and I believe we are better for it. Existentialism says an awareness of death leads to a fuller and more authentic life. But you don’t have to be an existentialist to appreciate the way thinking about death can at least lead to a more thoughtful and focused life, driven by the awareness that our time on earth is limited.

I have written these past 12 months about several death-oriented, life-enriching shows, ranging from the Netflix series After Life, starring Ricky Gervais as a middle-aged journalist whose wife dies young, to Elizabeth Is Missing, a PBS movie starring Glenda Jackson as a woman with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease trying to solve the disappearance of her only friend. Both rattled around in my brain long after the final credits played. And now comes a Frontline documentary, Death Is Our Business (PBS, tonight, 9 p.m.), which has had the same kind of effect on my psyche. Images from it danced through my dreams earlier this week and I have been thinking continually about some of its themes.

The documentary by filmmaker Jacqueline Olive (Always in Season) looks at the way in which COVID-19 has changed centuries-old Black funeral practices and rituals in New Orleans. That includes horse-and-carriage processions, jazz musicians and the second line of dancers. The power of the film is found in both the poetry of its imagery and the deep, cultural context and analysis it offers of the African-influenced rituals that have branded New Orleans internationally and provided its Black citizens with a wealth of tradition on which to draw at times of sorrow and loss.

The film opens with a series of images carefully edited to the words sounded in voice-over by New Orleans psychiatrist Dr. Denese Shervington.

“New Orleans is this very complex combination of suffering and joy,” Dr. Shervington says.

On the word “suffering,” the screen fills with stark images of workers in masks handing out bags of clothing and food. On “joy,” images of young musicians dancing in sync on the street as they play their drums overtake the screen.

“Katrina forced us to think a lot about what it means to heal,” Dr. Shervington continues. “I think we’re having a similar experience with COVID and this pandemic. How do individuals come back from extreme loss, loss of family members, loss of what was normal? How do you find your way back?”

Dr. Shervington’s words immediately contextualize this community’s response to COVID-19 within the history of Hurricane Katrina, an event of disproportionate suffering by Black citizens in New Orleans. She also introduces the notions of resilience and healing in asking how to rebound from events like that.

In the film, jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, a member of the famed musical family of New Orleans, offers a concrete way one of the funeral rituals of the city helps survivors come back from the loss of a loved one.

“The idea of the jazz funeral is actually to help the family,” he says in the film. “And the journey from the church to the burying ground is a process where you can not only reflect and think, but you have people who are there to support you.”

Olive says the jazz funeral has served multiple functions in Black life.

“One, it’s a way of transitioning the soul of the dead,” she says in an interview. “So, you have this sombre moment and then that turns into almost a street-festival celebration. That’s a way of cutting the body loose so it can transition to the other side.”

It also helps those left behind “to be able to deal with their grief collectively,” she says.

“They have people whose shoulders they can literally lean on,” she explains. “You see in the footage, folks hugging each other and supporting each other physically. But it also means people are sharing food and sharing space and stories about their loved ones.”

Marsalis felt the loss of that ritual at a personal level when his father Ellis, the patriarch of the family and an internationally celebrated jazz figure, died at the age of 85 last year as the pandemic worsened.

“He was buried April 4th,” Marsalis says in the film. “We had about 10 people there,” he adds, because of limits on how many mourners were allowed at a funeral at that time to stop spread of the virus.

It’s a much different look than prior to the pandemic.

“There would have been a second line and a jazz procession,” says Jasminne Navarre, director of client services for the D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home.

Louis Charbonnet III, CEO of Charbonnet, Labat-Glampion Funeral Home has similar sentiments: “We’re a jazz-funeral town, and it’s hard to tell people you can’t have a jazz funeral. But we have to.”

Even though the pandemic denied the Marsalis family the kind of grand New Orleans send-off residents wanted to give the pianist, there is a poignant moment in the film where Olive brilliantly creates a cinematic memorial for him.

She starts with the image and sound of Delfeayo Marsalis and two other musicians standing in a cemetery amid tombstones playing a slow, particularly mournful version of A Closer Walk With Thee. The music plays underneath the reciting of an excerpt of a poem written by Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, in the wake of Marsalis’s death.

“Last night, Ellis Marsalis went away,” Verret says. “No second line. No coming home of acolytes, the many musician daughters and sons. None may return to ring the bell, to celebrate, to mourn. In solitude, we remember.”

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Olive brings the music, images and words together in a perfectly distilled cinematic brew that makes your heart ache at the loss of this musical giant’s life. This moment alone would make the film worth going out of the way to see.

“There would have been literally at least 15,000 people lined up for the Ellis Marsalis funeral,” Olive says.

The film goes well beyond memorializing Marsalis or any one New Orleans figure, though.

“When I finished filming, I really came to understand that this film is a memorial to all those folks who died during the pandemic in which their lives weren’t acknowledged in the way they often deserved,” Olive says.

Death Is Our Business is a tribute, too, to the power of the rich Black funeral traditions of New Orleans and the funeral directors who, like jazz musicians, have been improvising the last year to keep bits of music, dance and celebration into their services, as difficult as that has been in the face of COVID-19.

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