As Coronavirus Upends Traditional Funerals, Locals Find Ways To Grieve The Dead Coronavirus and social distancing measures are making it harder for bereaved families to honor the lives of loved ones.
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As Coronavirus Upends Traditional Funerals, Locals Find Ways To Grieve The Dead

As Coronavirus Upends Traditional Funerals, Locals Find Ways To Grieve The Dead

Tuawana Pridgen, mortician and owner of Pridgen Funeral Home in Prince George's County. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Deborah Betts and her siblings were young when their mother died. She believes that's part of the reason the three of them were always extremely close.

"We were raised by our mom to believe that when there's nobody else there for you in your life, you'll always have your brother and your sister. And it was true," says Betts, who lives in Montgomery County.

Her voice breaks as she speaks. Betts' brother John Farley fell ill in March, and even though it was unrelated to COVID-19, she couldn't visit him or take him food in the hospital. When he died, instead of a packed service, just six close family members were able to gather — at a distance.

"I think the most difficult part was at the end when I couldn't even hug my niece and nephew and sister-in-law. We were all kind of standing apart from each other. I said to my nephew, 'I will get that hug one of these days!'"

Deborah Betts shared old family photos, including herself and her brother, John Farley (lower right), sitting in a hammock sorting sharks' teeth. Collage by Tyrone Turner/Courtesy Deborah Betts hide caption

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Collage by Tyrone Turner/Courtesy Deborah Betts

More than 2,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the Washington region, and the numbers are expected to rise. But the shutdown and need to socially distance have drastically changed funeral services for everyone who's lost a loved one, whether from COVID-19 or other causes.

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Traditional rituals that help with the grieving process have been cut short, changed or canceled because of fears of spreading coronavirus. Stay-at-home orders mean you can no longer make a 'shiva' call to console the deceased person's family in the Jewish tradition. You can't have a 'repast' or a communal meal, as many religions call for. And you cannot gather at a mosque to say the 'Salat al-Janazah,' or funeral prayer.

A 'Double Whammy'

Funeral homes are also trying to adapt. Erich March oversees eight Marshall-March Funeral Homes, located from Baltimore to Richmond. He describes a "double whammy" of families emotionally coping with the death of a loved one and unable to celebrate the person's life with a traditional funeral or memorial service.

March says all of this complicates our ability to grieve. He has seen more than 40 COVID-19 related deaths in the past month. March says many people are choosing immediate burials or cremations, and planning to hold memorial services later. With houses of worship closed, some choose to hold short services at the funeral home with just a few people.

"It's hard [for] everybody, but especially for the Black community, [which] is very traditional, and their practices that are built around the church and their spirituality," he said.

Limits on public gatherings have created challenges for all funeral services. Tuawana Pridgen is a mortician and owner of Pridgen Funeral Home in Prince George's County. She says that with strict limits on the number of people who can gather means families have to make some very difficult decisions.

"Imagine going from a funeral that normally would host 100 to 200 people, sometimes more, to now a family having to select what 10 people will be in attendance. It's like a mental anguish."

She says many cemeteries now have their own restrictions on numbers, and that can cause her clients additional grief.

"[The] family tomorrow, there are 13 of them. They've chosen to have a graveside service, but only five people can be at the cemetery."

In that case, Pridgen says, the family decided to include everyone by live-streaming the event, a service many funeral homes are now offering. Some funeral homes suggest having mourners come to the cemetery, but stay in their cars.

Most funeral directors have moved to virtual meetings to support grieving families, and most paperwork is now completed online. Some have limited their staff's time at the funeral home to keep them safe, and they are stocking up on protective gear.

Nasir Saleh runs Alfirdaus Funeral Home in Fairfax, Va. He says for Muslims, mourning the dead is considered a collective obligation. Now he has to tell family members they cannot perform the sacred ritual of washing the deceased if they've died of COVID-19. Instead, he follows "Tayammum," a dry ritual where sand is used to purify the body, which is first sealed in a bag. "It works instead of washing the body, because washing the body in the preparation room with the family can create a dangerous situation."

Pridgen says some families aren't able to have any kind of service because of the wider disruption caused by the coronavirus. She gives the example of some international residents, for whom laying the body to rest in their home country is very important.

"I have a family right now, they've been trying to get the gentleman back to Cameroon. You know, we may get word that there is a flight, but then it's canceled."

'Disenfranchised Grief'

Professor Douglas Davies is the director of the Center of Life and Death Studies at Durham University in northeast England. He says there are several reasons we have funeral services. One is sociological, where status within a family may be reordered. He uses the example of an older child becoming the head of the family after a death. Another reason we have rituals around death is psychological, helping us adjust to the loss of a loved one.

And there's the religious aspect, he says. "Whether it's the Tibetan Book of the Dead or in Catholic last rites, whatever it might be, help the soul in transit from this world to the next."

Davies says what's happening now reminds him of a concept called "disenfranchised grief." "Some years ago, if you had a person with a gay partner and the family did not know of that gay partner or didn't approve of that gay partner, then when one of the couple died, the family took charge and the gay partner was disenfranchised and wasn't allowed to be part of the ceremony."

Researchers found not having a loss acknowledged by society leads to feelings of anger, exclusion and intensified loss. Professor Davies says what's happening now is "disenfranchised grief" on a mass scale.

"You want to be able to hug one another. You can't. So there's a sense in which social isolation is precisely the symbolic opposite of what funerals have normally done, which is about social meeting. We're in a world of ritual opposites at the moment."

He theorizes that there may be a day or month designated to honor people lost to coronavirus in the future, to offer a way for people to grieve their loved ones. There might also be some kind of memorial built, as in England, after World War 1 when soldiers' bodies were not brought home.

Postponed Memorials

Michele Berryhill recently lost her husband George to COVID-19. They had been married 35 years and lived in Prince George's County.

"We were together all the time. And he's gone, and I just miss him because right now I'm in the living room, sitting on the couch. He would be right there over there in the chair, and he's not here."

Michele and George Berryhill at home in Prince George's County (top). George recently died of COVID-19. They are shown with their children (lower left) and at their wedding ceremony (lower right). Collage by Tyrone Turner/Courtesy Michele Berryhill hide caption

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Collage by Tyrone Turner/Courtesy Michele Berryhill

Berryhill tries not to dwell on how scared he was, alone in the hospital. Or that she had him cremated, instead of buried in their joint gravesite, like they planned.

Instead, like many who have lost loved ones, she's planning a big celebration to honor his life when this is all over. She says her husband was very popular, and so she's expecting 150 people or more.

"I'm planning on a memorial service at a church. I'm going to try and have a place that can hold everybody!"

Mass Burials

The National Funeral Directors Association has seen almost 600 people volunteer to help bury the dead in hot spots with large numbers of deaths from coronavirus, including New York, New Jersey and Michigan.

While there hasn't been a need in the Washington region for additional help yet, Randolph Horton believes that could change as numbers here continue to rise. He's the President of Horton Funeral Homes and a board member of the D.C. Board of Funeral Directors. Horton says the worst isn't over, and he is planning ahead.

"I am purchasing a refrigerated trailer, that can probably hold 70 human remains."

Horton's company also owns a cemetery in Calvert County, Md, on nearly 100 acres of land. He's offered local governments help with mass burials; with so many people out of work, many people won't be able to afford a funeral or burial for their loved ones.

"If they don't have any income to take care of their living expenses, they sure don't have income to take care of their loved one who's passed," he said.

Social Distancing 'Doesn't Stop The Grieving Process'

But regardless of what the future holds or how practices change, funeral directors say their mission will remain constant: to help families through the grieving process.

For six generations, Michael Lee's family has operated Lee Funeral Homes, with locations in Prince George's and Calvert counties.

"The coronavirus and the restrictions of social distancing doesn't stop the grieving process," he says. And their role is to make families comfortable, knowing their loved one is at peace.

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