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.”
Like other large gatherings, funerals without social distancing precautions have been linked to coronavirus outbreaks in Chicago as well as other cities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and media reports.
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.
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