It’s not unusual for a person to pass away and leave behind some unpaid debt.
For the heirs — typically the surviving spouse or children — the question often is what, exactly, happens to those obligations. The answer: It depends on both the type of debt and the laws of the state.
A person’s assets — no matter how meager or massive — become their “estate” at death. That includes their financial accounts, possessions and real estate. And, generally speaking, it’s the estate that creditors go after when they try to collect money that they’re owed.
“Fortunately for surviving spouses or other beneficiaries, in most cases that debt isn’t something they’d be responsible for,” said certified financial planner Shon Anderson, president of Anderson Financial Strategies in Dayton, Ohio.
However, there are some exceptions.
First, though, some basics.
The process of paying off all your debt after your death and then distributing any remaining assets from your estate to heirs is called probate. Each state has its own laws governing how long creditors have to make a claim against the estate during that time. In some places it’s a few months. In other states, the process can last a couple of years.
Each state also has its own set of rules for prioritizing debt that should be paid from the estate, said Steven Mignogna, a fellow with the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel.
“In most states, funeral expenses take priority, then the cost of administering the estate, then taxes and then most states include hospital and medical bills,” Mignogna said.
However, he added, not all of a person’s assets necessarily are counted as part of an estate for probate purposes.
For instance, with life insurance policies and qualified retirement accounts (e.g., a 401(k) or individual retirement account), those assets go directly to the person named as the beneficiary and are not subject to probate. Additionally, assets placed in certain types of trusts also pass on outside of probate, as does jointly owned property (e.g., a house) as long as it is titled properly.
In fact, a person could pass away with an insolvent estate — that is, one lacking the means to pay off its liabilities — and yet have passed on assets that didn’t go through probate and generally can’t be touched by creditors.
However, a handful of states have “community property” laws, which make debt at death a bit more complex.
Generally, those states view both assets and certain debt that accumulated during the marriage as equally owned by each spouse — meaning a surviving spouse could be responsible for paying back the debt, even if it was only in the decedent’s name.
“Debt that couldn’t have been avoided during the marriage — like medical expenses or a mortgage — generally becomes the responsibility of the surviving spouse in community property states,” said CFP Bill Simonet, principal advisor at Simonet Financial Group in Kyle, Texas.
Yet that doesn’t mean you’d have to pay all of it, he said.
“A well-structured letter with a copy of the death certificate can lead to debt being discharged,” Simonet said. “In the probate process, you let the company know the estate has little to no assets to cover the debt and you ask that it be forgiven.”
Also, any time you jointly own debt — i.e., you cosigned a loan — you’re expected to continue paying if the other person passes away.
“You can ask for debt you cosigned to be forgiven, but don’t expect the request to work,” Simonet said.
It’s worth noting that federal student loans, unlike most forms of debt, are forgiven if the student dies. Parent PLUS loans — often held by parents to help pay for education expenses not covered by other forms of financial aid — are discharged if either the student or the parent who took out the loan passes away.
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What Happens to Their Bodies?
A conversation with Amy Cunningham, Brooklyn’s environmentally-friendly funeral director.
by Grace Gedye
On a Brooklyn neighborhood forum, funeral director Amy Cunningham put out the call. Could anyone contribute items, like flowers, to an upcoming funeral? An elderly woman had died of coronavirus in a nursing home and had no family in the area. Florists in New York are closed, so one resident contributed lilacs from her backyard, the Associated Press reported. Another embroidered “Mom” on some fabric that would be placed on the casket, with the deceased woman’s family watching via livestream.
More than 16,000 people have died of Covid-19 in New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. Just as hospitals have struggled to keep up with the influx of sick people, the city has also struggled to accommodate all of the dead. The state has relaxed environmental regulations to allow crematoriums to operate around the clock, and the city has dispatched a fleet of mobile morgues. Burials on Hart Island, New York’s mass grave for bodies that aren’t claimed, or whose family cannot afford a funeral, have increased five-fold.
Funeral directors like Cunningham have been forced to adapt ceremonies and services around the contagious disease. Cunningham, the founder of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, specializes in environmentally friendly burials. She and I talked about how funerals have changed in New York.
This conversation has been shortened and edited for clarity.
How is your work different since the coronavirus outbreak started in New York?
Well, my firm specialized in earth friendly burials, home funerals, and witnessed cremation services, and none of those services are currently possible in exactly the same way I was delivering them. Because of the novel coronavirus, families are saying goodbye—on a good day—with nursing assistants holding the cell phone to the ear of the dying person in a hospital that the family hasn’t even been able to enter.
I’ve got four caskets in my living room right now. That’s a little unusual.
The funerals I’m managing now involve the transporting of the deceased person in a white plastic body pouch to protect the funeral home personnel from any risk of the virus passing to them in the hours after death. That bag isn’t coming off at the funeral home. While it’s believed that the coronavirus expires within the body at the time of a death, there is said to be some risk to individuals in the hours immediately afterwards, perhaps because the lungs of the dead person still hold a bit of air, and as we move them they actually can exhale a little bit after death. Plastic body bags are a fact of life for now, but they are upsetting to me. They’re hardly eco-friendly, not remotely green. I’ve got folks looking into how we could develop something just as sturdy and kinder to the planet.
Another thing that’s different is that previously, if a death occurred on a Tuesday I could arrange for a burial or cremation two days, three days later, sometimes even the next day if the paperwork went smoothly. Because of the sheer number of dead that we’re managing, cremations are now being scheduled at the end of May.
Are there any basic things you need in order to provide your services that are either hard to get ahold of or that you’re running out of?
It seems likely that there will be a casket shortage eventually. I’ve personally solved that issue by bringing caskets into my living room at home. I live in a two-story limestone row house and I’ve got four caskets in my living room right now. I went ahead and had the casket company deliver them, and had my son and husband carry them in so that at least I’d have some caskets that were clean and ready to move when I needed them. That’s a little unusual.
Have there been an influx of families that are in need of death care services but can’t afford them? If so, what are their options?
Yes, I’m hearing from people who need a funeral, and are disappointed that the wait time for an affordable cremation is so long. Some have lost their jobs, have no money, and need to plan a funeral with a burial now that might cost $1500 to $6000. It’s pretty devastating. There was a time when the deaths were occurring so quickly that some funeral homes weren’t able to manage the sheer volume of the work and were referring people out to other firms. Those firms were helping us New York City funeral directors cremate the dead by taking them to other states. There’s so many deceased people, our crematories are overwhelmed. So, there are people driving deceased folk up to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, other areas where the crematories are a little less overwhelmed.
In the coming month, that’s going to ease up. Today in New York as you’re interviewing me, I’m not hearing the same sirens out in the streets that I was two weeks ago. So it could be correct that, as Governor Cuomo says, we’re leveling this off. But people out of work are still struggling and starting GoFundMe pages to help them with the cost of the funeral.
I will say this, however: I’m really impressed with the local funeral directors that are reducing their prices for families in that situation. How can you charge them the full rate? It just can’t happen. So, we’re offering people our services at a reduction.
What does your typical day look like right now?
The heavy lifting and placing in the casket is done by amazing folks I employ to help me at the funeral home. My day is mostly on the telephone with grieving families, trying to schedule and arrange these burials and cremations in a timely way. I’m spending a fair amount of my time explaining to families why only 10 family members can come to the cemetery. We’re trying to educate folks about the possibilities and Zoom memorials and new ways to grieve remotely so that we can have some sort of commemoration of the life as we manage the very very basic down-to-earth matter of a simple disposition right now.
What has been your advice to people who have lost family or friends to coronavirus? Either practical advice, or different advice you’re giving on how to grieve?
I had already been thinking that we place too much emphasis on the hour-long funeral service. Saying farewell to someone is really the task of a lifetime, and something that you do most intensely over the period of the first full year. So I’ve been coaching families to see that, yes, we’ve lost the gathering we’re most familiar with, but you will be able to find a way to mourn, and find community, and relate to your other family members in a way that will be new but restorative in surprising ways.
When I do have a casket in my car headed for a burial, we’ve been replacing traditional chapel gatherings with doing these outdoor block parades. I drive the car with the casket in it onto the actual block where the deceased person lived, and people can acknowledge the death as a neighborhood. I had one death caused by a heart attack. We have to remember that other sorts of deaths still occur in the age of the novel coronavirus. I drove to the man’s block, opened the car, and allowed people to approach the car while maintaining a safe distance from each other. They placed flowers in the car, and then the immediate family drove to the cemetery and stood at the lovely graveside service 6 to 10 feet apart. Good funeral, lots of love expressed.
I know you specialize in sustainable, or greener burials. Are you still able to do those kind services?
Yes. My real contribution as a funeral director in this moment is personally driving people upstate to eco-friendly cemeteries that will just bury simple caskets in the earth. The only problem is that there is this plastic body bag inside there that I never used to have to use. Most of the eco-friendly cemeteries are saying, “well, God, what can we do, we know it’s a crisis in our country, and a time of considerable suffering.” So, they may take that plastic bag for the short term as we work it out. In other words, the green burials I’m managing are just a bit less green than they used to be but we’re doing the best we can.
Do you think the pandemic will lead to any lasting changes in the funeral industry?
I hesitate before mentioning this because it doesn’t feel like a great time to criticize the conventional funeral industry. The men who have been in the business 40 years and were nearing retirement have flung themselves into this crisis and been so courageous.
However, maybe when we catch our breath, we’ll evaluate where we’re headed as an industry and how we might provide better services to more people, and take the drive to profit from the funeral out altogether by looking at cooperative funeral home structure, which is operating very successfully in the state of Washington.
In the old days prior to the Civil War, before the American funeral industry was formed, communities took care of their own. And it feels to me like we could attend to that kind of care again and find ways to make deaths less of a medical event, and more of a community-based experience. So, as I work hard and admire the conventional guys I know and work around, I’m at the same time thinking, “Gee, there must be a better way to give funeral services to people at an affordable rate, and in a loving way.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
If someone you know has died from complications due to COVID-19, these resources may be helpful.
More than 238,000 people around the world have lost their lives to COVID-19, and the death toll is growing as the full effects of the coronavirus play out in hospitals and communities. The nature of social distancing means patients are denied visitors in their final hours and families can’t congregate in person at funerals and homes to bury their dead and mourn.
Enforced distance during a time of traditional togetherness can deny people the physical comfort of a hug, a shoulder to cry on and a sense of finality that’s part of the grieving process when someone close has died.
Online resources and tools are no replacement for a gathering of loved ones and friends, but they can help families organize online memorials, memory books and donations made in your loved one’s memory. We present some resources to help plan a remote funeral or memorial and otherwise honor those who have died as a result of COVID-19.
Remember that performing a physical act can sometimes help you regain some agency during a situation you can’t otherwise control. Here are additional tips to help manage anxiety during the pandemic.
Have a Zoom, Skype or YouTube funeral or memorial service now
The coronavirus restrictions prevent us from holding a funeral in person to honor the memory of those who we’ve lost. If you’re affiliated with a religious institution, reach out to see what kind of support your organization can supply in the short term — for example, literature on grief, individual video chats with you and your family members or online prayer meetings.
Your family and friends can also hold a memorial service using Zoom (change these settings to prevent unwanted guests) or another video chat service like Skype broadcast, Google Meet or even a private YouTube channel. Sharing a eulogy or other prepared tribute, readings, poems and personal stories — even discussing the hardship of being alone — can provide a chance to mourn together in a virtual community.
You can also record the memorial service to play later or to share with others who couldn’t attend online.
Set up a vigil your community can see from the street
To honor the memory of the family member who has died, you might light large candles on your porch or windowsill and allow others to drive past and honk to offer support. Set up a large box on your driveway for those in your neighborhood to drop off letters, flowers or other items they may want to share as a sign of their support and grief — at a distance from others.
As you collect items, make sure to handle them cautiously, and wash your hands after touching them. If you yourself are in a high-risk group, ask for deliveries, physical mail and email instead. These gestures could mean a great deal to others who never got to say goodbye and who want to support you.
Ask your religious institution for advice
Although most churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship are closed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, they can still be used as a way to help you grieve. If you’re affiliated with a religious institution, reach out to see how they can provide relief during this time.
One church is live-streaming funerals and services for its congregants. A synagogue is also holding virtual prayer using Google Hangouts. One mosque is live-streaming the sermon and prayer, while another outside the United States is broadcasting the prayer over a speaker.
Ask your institution how they’re helping those in need. See if you can speak with the religious leader, like a priest, imam or rabbi when you need someone to pray or grieve with during this time.
Plant something in your garden or in a pot
The act of planting a flower, ornamental bush or even a fruit-bearing tree in the yard could provide comfort as a symbol of life, of hope or even simply as a way you’ve chosen to honor the deceased.
Reach out to online support groups
Live and Work Well, a website for well-being and behavioral health, suggests looking into online support groups for grief and loss. You can find others in your area that are grieving through websites such as Grief Support. At this time, the groups are meeting online.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
This is different from saying we need to talk about death and dying (which we also need to do). I mean instead that we should focus our minds on what the human corpse means in this new pandemic reality.
Consider the number of dead bodies in the world before coronavirus. Based on global mortality statistics, approximately 56,842,500 humans died over the course of 2019. That’s roughly 155,732 people a day.
In the US, approximately 2,898,060 people died that year, which means about 7,939 a day. In the UK, the death rate for 2019 was 620,268, averaging 1,700 people a day.
It is easy to gloss over these statistics, since most of us never really think about millions of dead bodies. But what these numbers illustrate is that dead bodies are an everyday constant, we just don’t pay attention to them unless our job directly involves the dead.
So dead bodies are completely normal -– until suddenly they’re not. Until a novel virus sweeps the globe and produces a dead body count with life altering repercussions.
In order to manage and cope with the millions of dead bodies produced every year, different countries create what I call a “national death infrastructure” or NDI. The various parts of this infrastructure range from the local (a neighbourhood cemetery) to the global (systems in place for international repatriation). But crucially, the National Death Infrastructure is largely invisible to most of our lives.
Now COVID-19 is making NDIs visible. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic is relentlessly demonstrating what happens when NDIs are not prepared for an unplanned spike in human mortality. We have seen thousands of coffins unattended in Italy, temporary emergency morgues in New York, and Spanish officials storing dead bodies at an ice rink.
Disturbing as many people find these news stories, everything happening to manage COVID-19 corpses is from various “mass fatality” and “disaster victim identification” playbooks. I know this because, as director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, I’ve participated in consultations on governmental postmortem preparedness.
What’s different, of course, is that most people already oblivious to the NDI are wholly unprepared to see dead bodies rapidly produced in multiple countries, at the same time, and reported hourly on the news.
Imagine though, if details were broadcast for a year on how every one of the around 56 million people across the planet died – how they died and in what circumstances. Seeing this kind of detail in death might help people realise how important the infrastructure dealing with dead bodies really is, and why it needs to be financially supported by national governments.
Because right now, huge numbers of families cannot mourn their dead in the ways they expect to. We have seen this situation before with AIDS-related deaths, where next-of-kin were told a funeral was unsafe because HIV caused the death.
As I explain in my new book, Technologies of the Human Corpse, none of this was correct but that didn’t stop it from being said. And now COVID-19 flips the situation on its head. Funerals are currently not safe because living family members could spread COVID-19 by interacting with fellow mourners. The human corpse, this time, isn’t the viral issue. So the kind of funerals many of us are used to will have to wait.
And even for the kind of services that are now taking place, funeral directors in the US and the UK are running out of personal protective equipment (PPE) and body bags.
This is a bigger issue in cities like London and New York, but it will quickly affect small places too. Funeral industry workers are the essential frontline staff that both the living and the dead critically need right now, and like their colleagues in medicine and pathology, they are putting their lives at risk to ensure the national death infrastructure operates.
The current situation is not sustainable and governments will need to move quickly to manage the ever increasing numbers of dead bodies and make sure the funeral industry front line has the supplies it needs. They will also need to be prepared for a public backlash if they fail to do so.
Right now we all seem to be suffering from what I call “virological determinism” – we are blaming everything on a virus, when in fact blame lies with human failure to adequately follow existing public health pandemic response and preparedness planning. Failure which has created a situation where for weeks and months to come we will be confronted by mounting mortality statistics and dead bodies. More dead bodies than most national death infrastructures can manage.
So we need to talk about dead bodies and we need to do it now. And we should never forget that the COVID-19 dead bodies are mounting up because humans failed to effectively anticipate what new viruses almost always do – create human corpses.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
Robbed of obsequies for those we love adds an unconscionable burden
The famous spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, as a young man back-packing through Ireland, watched a burial in Donegal, fascinated by a group of men filling in a grave as the grieving family watched in silence.
What struck him was the way, when the task was almost complete, the men used the backs of their shovels to tap down the clay. The ritual, he felt, was saying to the bereaved: “This person is dead, really dead. There is no doubting now this obvious truth.”
In recent years the ritual of filling in the grave is not as common as heretofore but, as with other rituals, we often don’t aver to the purpose behind them, or why they developed. They are part of a pattern, a background against which we measure our way of dealing with death.
When death occurs in Ireland, we move effortlessly into funeral mode. There’s a familiar template for family, community and necessary services
Strangely, for some like Nouwen from other cultures, they are signposts of a comfort zone that in faith and in family we have successfully created around the difficult experience of grieving those we love.
We are a funeral people. Funerals, unlike in some other cultures, are huge events in Ireland. A friend told me once about working in an office in Scandinavia when a colleague broke down at work. It emerged that he had buried his mother that morning and was back at work that evening.
It would be unthinkable, unimaginable, even shocking in Ireland.
When death occurs in Ireland, we move effortlessly into funeral mode. There’s a familiar template for family, community and necessary services. It’s a kaleidoscope of respect, mood, attitude, support systems and rituals that resonate with the need to create a platform for dealing with such an earth-shattering experience.
A key element is support offered by the community. People gather and individually offer their condolences. It may be no more than a brisk shake of the hand and a cliched formula of words but it’s fundamentally about respectful presence in solidarity with the grieving.
The coronavirus has robbed us of many things but the experience of dealing with the death and funeral obsequies of those we love adds an unconscionable burden at the present time.
Grieving brings with it a variety of responses, some reasonable to the outside observer, others part of the blame game we play to lessen the pain of loss
Stories emerge of family members watching from the distance as a loved one faces into what must be the loneliest experience of all and not be able to hold a hand or give a hug or a kiss seems almost beyond human endurance.
A wife, now a widow, told a newspaper about how she had expected her husband to die at home and how she might have lain beside him to comfort him in his dying but their last moments together were supervised by health authorities as she watched him through a window.
Rites and rituals
The other, added weight to bear for the grieving is to be deprived of the comfort and consolation of the rites and rituals of a funeral. At present only 10 people can attend a funeral Mass or a graveside and are expected to follow the rules about social distancing.
And the community response is limited to neighbours and friends sitting in their cars outside the church or in towns, lining the streets as a mark of respect. Interestingly the Government, knowing the limits to human endurance and the place burying the dead has in our culture, didn’t seek to ban funeral Masses.
Grieving brings with it a variety of responses, some reasonable to the outside observer, others part of the blame game we play to lessen the pain of loss. If a priest, undertaker or doctor gets it wrong at the time of our funeral it becomes an enduring family memory that festers for years.
With death and dying, the ground we stand in is a sacred space.
That said, our obligation to the living has to take precedence. In boring but necessary repetition, the warnings keep coming from the authorities – social distancing, hygiene etiquette, stay at home – and they need to.
The sun may be shining but the journey towards the promised land of something approaching normality is far from over. And if grieving families have to accept the present difficult arrangements around death and funerals, the rest of us should be prepared to accept our more marginal sacrifices.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
(Still In Practice Today)
When it comes to dealing with the dead, some countries have traditions that are a bit stranger than most.
by Vanessa Elle
Unique traditions help to preserve the history and identity of a particular culture. From Halloween practices to funerals, every culture has its own traditions when it comes to dealing with the dead. Keep reading to find out about some of the world’s oddest funeral traditions that are still practiced today.
Indonesia: The Funeral Takes Place Years After Death
In many countries, funerals are held only a short amount of time after someone passes away. But in eastern Indonesia, funerals amongst the Toraja ethnic group are sometimes held years after a person has died. The primary reason for this is that they are often larger-than-life events lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and it sometimes takes a family that long to save up enough money to afford such an affair.
Between the moment a Toraja person dies and the moment they have their funeral, they are still kept in the family home rather than in a morgue. They are referred to as someone who is sick or sleeping rather than someone who has passed away and is even cared for, laid down, and symbolically fed.
Ghana: People Are Buried In Fantasy Coffins
Ghana has made headlines in the past for the fantasy coffins that are so popular in the African nation. The idea behind fantasy coffins is that people get the chance to rest forever after in a casket that represents something they were passionate about or something they achieved. For example, a fisherman might be laid to rest in an oversized fish while a businessman might choose a casket shaped like a Mercedes.
It’s common across many cultures to invest a lot of money into the ideal coffin and this tradition just takes the idea one step further. After all, a coffin serves as someone’s final resting place, so it only makes sense that it represents them properly.
Tibet: The Body Is Exposed To Vultures
Sky burials are common amongst the Vajrayana Buddhist communities of Mongolia and Tibet. After a person has died, their body is cut into pieces and left on a mountaintop, where it is exposed to vultures. The underlying belief behind the tradition is that the body becomes an empty vessel following death and must be returned to the earth while the soul moves on.
The practice dates back years and is still the most popular method of burial in Tibet today. Other cultures across the world have also been known to expose a corpse rather than bury or cremate it, including the Zoroastrians, a religious group that today is mostly found in India but can be traced back to pre-Islamic Iran.
Madagascar: Having A Last Dance With The Body
Amongst the Malagasy people of Madagascar, a person’s burial isn’t a singular event. According to the traditional famadihana ritual, the body is exhumed every five to seven years to take part in a celebration. During the ritual, the bodies are sprayed with wine or perfume and family members dance with them while a band plays.
Some take the opportunity to update the deceased person on family news or ask for their blessings. More importantly, during famadihana, people remember the deceased person and tell stories of them to keep their memory alive.
New Orleans: A Jazz Band Funeral Procession
Of course, a jazz funeral could only ever take place in New Orleans! This tradition involves a brass band that accompanies a person’s funeral procession. The idea behind it is that the streets are filled with music and the deceased person’s life can be celebrated in addition to their death being mourned.
The procession typically begins at the church or funeral home and marches all the way to the cemetery. The music steadily becomes more upbeat as the march goes on and people begin to dance, with passersby also encouraged to join in on the dancing.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
As the coronavirus pandemic limits people’s ability to mourn, they are finding new ways to say goodbye.
My father died of the coronavirus last week, and I’m not sure how to mourn. No visitors were allowed in the hospital, and my family did not get final goodbyes and I-love-yous, even over the phone. We think he died alone.
My sister planned a service, but only a few people were there, and everyone had to remain six feet apart. I took the bus home, skipping the burial because I have no car and didn’t want to violate the six-feet rule. Afterward, we could not grieve together as a family or share a meal, stories, laughter and tears.
In ordinary circumstances, I would have my retail job to go back to, which would help me regain a sense of normalcy. That option doesn’t exist now. How do I find closure? Maybe I can do a video conference, but it seems so impersonal and incomplete.
THERESA SCHILIZZI, Brooklyn, N.Y.
I couldn’t be sorrier about the loss of your father, or your quandary, which looms over us all. We may be about to confront death on a scale few of us have ever known, while being stripped of time-honored consolations: wakes, funerals, shivas. When the hour calls for togetherness, we will be apart.
When I called you to learn more, you told me that two years ago, you took a course called “The Art of Dying,” about finding new ways to bring honor to the end of life. “It changed me, to view death in a sacred way,” you said. Instead, your father got an ending that defied everything you had learned about saying goodbye.
To find answers, I turned to therapists and members of the clergy. Most of their advice was compassionate but resigned: Stay safe. Call friends. Even if a more extensive memorial is planned for later, don’t forgo the opportunity to mourn now. Give Zoom and Google Hangouts a try.
“It’s the best that we can do under these circumstances,” said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J., who has been leading funerals and shivas over Zoom.
That did not seem like enough. Grasping for more, I contacted historians of death, seeking clues about how previous generations mourned amid pandemics. They offered some of the more hopeful answers, and a prediction: This crisis would transform the way we grieve. These kinds of catastrophes are what push us forward in our mourning rituals, and now we are poised to make another leap.
“As gut-wrenching as these stories are going to be, we are going to find ways to innovate and adapt, to make meaning out of these separations,” said Gary Laderman, a professor of American religious history at Emory University.
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When disasters limit mourning, people invent new ways to say goodbye, Dr. Laderman and his peers said. It had happened many times before. The Black Death in Europe caused a high mortality rate among priests, so everyday people stepped in. During the Civil War, American families turned to embalming, to preserve the dead over time and distance, so they could be returned for burial at home. Those efforts helped give rise to the modern funeral industry. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia left many of their victims in mass graves. So the bereaved switched to chanting over the possessions of the departed.
Those shifts were poised to happen before the tragedies hit, the historians said. But the crises accelerated the changes, and they lasted because they filled some shared need. Based on what the historians said, Theresa, your “Art of Dying” class may be more relevant than ever.
Authority figures like funeral directors and clergy members may become less central to the grieving process. “I think we’ll see a radical shift in the democratization of authority, who has the right to officiate a funeral,” said Priya Parker, the host of a new podcast, called “Together Apart,” on how people can still connect during this crisis.
Online funerals may dissolve the constraints of the form: size, location, cost. Eulogies could take on new shape. “We might imagine recorded remarks from loved ones, keeping their social distancing practices, filming words of remembrance at varied sites of significance to the deceased: a back porch rocking chair, a local fishing pond, a beloved hiking trail, the site of a first date,” wrote the Rev. Cody J. Sanders, an American Baptist chaplain at Harvard University.
Mourners are likely to place less emphasis on the body of the deceased. “I fear that, in some instances, the only moment that the family will meet the body again is when those cremated remains arrive in the mail,” Ms. Cunningham said.
Instead, the focus may be on memorializing that person’s life, and finding new ways to signal sorrow. In the 19th century, families had elaborate ways of telling the world they had lost a loved one, down to the texture of black fabric they wore, said Brandy Schillace, a medical historian. Windows were draped in black to mark a death in the home. “You could drive by a house, realize they were in grief and have solidarity with them,” she said.
Many of those rituals were abandoned when medicine improved and fewer lives were lost, Dr. Schillace said.
Now, as losses are beginning to mount, so is determination to forge new ways to comfort the bereaved. Volunteers are organizing donations of tablet computers to hospitals so that families in straits like yours will find it easier to share final moments. New grief groups are forming online. Prepare for more transformation in coming weeks, the historians predicted. Social media can turn a new practice into a tradition in 24 hours. Because no one is safe from the coronavirus, mortality is front and center for everyone.
When this crisis is over, some of these changes are likely to endure. Even when it’s safe to travel again, many in-person funerals will start to include video conference options for those who are far away, Ms. Cunningham said.
“I don’t know that the funeral will ever be the same,” she said.
Theresa, you are in the vanguard, even if you never wanted to be. Because of the time you invested in your “Art of Dying” class, you may be better equipped than some. Is it any consolation to think of yourself as part of a historic shift, in a position to find your own solutions and then help others by sharing them? I hope so.
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