Funerals – the Unintended Casualty of an Outbreak

My father died in December of last year, and like most families, we gathered at the funeral home for the wake and funeral. We stood in line and greeted family and friends and shared stories of our dad with those that came to honor him. After the funeral we all attended a meal in his honor at the local Masonic Hall and told more stories, hugged each other, and helped each other with the start of the healing process after his death.

My way of thinking – wakes and funerals are for the living. Healing begins while we stand in line and greet people and share time with them. We never “get over it,” but we begin to heal during the wake and funeral. If that process is not available to us, then healing will take longer. Everyone experiences grief in their way, and everyone deals with that grief in their way. Grief is a very natural response to a loss, any loss even if those around you do not acknowledge that loss. Grief can be debilitating, and the symptoms can manifest at any time. Coping with that loss is one of life’s biggest challenges.

The other side of that same grief coin is our loved one’s final moments. As a family, we were able to be with my dad when he drew his last breath. This time of quarantine and shelter-in-place orders does not allow us to be present during those moments. Under normal circumstances we would not have to deal with feelings surrounding the abandonment of our loved one, during their final moments. These are all unintended casualties of an outbreak, such as what we are experiencing now.

The Congregation I serve as Senior Minister has developed a new policy regarding funerals. The new policy states that, while the Emergency Order to keep assemblies to ten or under is in force, we will not hold funerals in the Church building. We will offer a graveside service with the option of Memorial Service in the Church later. Still, for now, the Church building is closed. The policy to close the church for funerals was not easy to write or to enact. Nevertheless, we felt it was necessary to protect the Congregation and those that might attend.

As the death toll continues to rise from this Virus, it is easy to lose sight of people amidst the statistics and the partisan wrangling that takes place in State Houses and on Capitol Hill. Behind every death number reported is a real flesh and blood person who has a family that loves them. These death numbers are grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends, and all the rest. We may get lost in the numbers game until we start seeing the faces behind those numbers.

When this began, comparisons were made between deaths from the seasonal flu and the Coronavirus trying to prove that the death numbers would be less. As I write this, some are saying “get people back to work” and “grandparents would be willing to sacrifice their lives for the economy” to downplay the seriousness of the situation. In the end we hope this situation will not be so dire, but for right now, consider this: you might not be able to be with your loved one as they draw their last breath. You may not be able to be present for their funeral. I ask you to stop and think how you would feel if that was to happen to you. Then ask yourself, do you still think that the Coronavirus is less severe than the seasonal flu? I refer to funerals as unintended casualties because in all the planning we can do as a community, the idea of delayed grief was never part of the plan, at least not in the plan in which I have been involved. Many unanswered questions remain about the long-term ramifications of the decision to hold or not to hold funerals, or to limit the number in attendance to 10 people, including the minister. I guess all we can do is wait and minister to people in the present moment.