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News >  Spokane

‘We’re just doing the best we can’: Spokane cemeteries alter Memorial Day plans during pandemic

The Fairchild Air Force Base Honor Guard brings out the flags during a Memorial Day Remembrance ceremony at the State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake in this May 2019 photo. The ceremony will not take place this year due to the ongoing orders for social distancing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
The Fairchild Air Force Base Honor Guard brings out the flags during a Memorial Day Remembrance ceremony at the State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake in this May 2019 photo. The ceremony will not take place this year due to the ongoing orders for social distancing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

For the bereaved families of Spokane and the rest of America, something precious has been lost to the coronavirus.

Closure.

Since its founding a decade ago, the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake has celebrated Memorial Day with all the respect it deserves. Crowds of up to 2,000 gather for speeches, flyovers, musical performances and the playing of “Taps” to honor the sacrifice of veterans.

“It’s a very special ceremony,” said Rudy Lopez, the cemetery’s director since 2003.

But it won’t happen this year because of social-distancing requirements in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We feel really bad because this would have been our 10th year of holding the ceremony,” Lopez said.

Coronavirus is changing how we live but also how we grieve.

Back in March, when Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state’s first social-distancing measures, funeral homes and cemeteries were thrown into disarray with orders to ban funerals outright.

There would no formal goodbyes, only direct placement of the loved one’s body in an urn or casket.

Later, after two weeks of confusion, immediate family members were finally allowed to say their final goodbyes to loved ones.

“It’s been a significant change, and a little bit challenging for a while there,” said David Ittner, president of the Fairmount Memorial Association, which operates seven memorial parks in Spokane County.

“It was really touch and go and changing day to day,” Ittner said. “We’re just doing the best we can.”

For those in the funeral business, difficult conversations became even more so under the strain of COVID-19. “Families had to be told they can’t have the service they want,” Ittner said.

Fortunately, funeral directors “are trained and made for those challenging conversations,” he said.

For Ittner, the issue became personal when his wife’s grandmother died. Her family held off on holding a ceremony until they could delay no longer.

However, they achieved a small measure of solace when Fairmount staff was able to place a few personal keepsakes before interment.

Things have settled down since April 30 with a recommendation that up to 10 family members may be permitted at services in funeral homes or cemeteries.

Not surprisingly, most families around the country have opted for small graveside services. Many have postponed larger memorial services until the stay-home orders are lifted.

“Families expect and need to have that gathering,” Ittner said. “They want that celebration of life, and they simply can’t have it the way they used to.”

“We’re just trying to our best,” he said.

That’s also true for veterans on America’s most solemn holiday. Cemeteries are open and keeping regular hours, but it won’t feel the same.

Every year, the Fairmount Memorial Association tries to do something special for grieving families on Memorial Day weekend, including concerts and even a beer garden.

“Those are just some of the things we do to get people to understand the value that cemeteries provide their communities,” Ittner said.

“First and foremost, we’re a community resource, and we end up donating a lot of dollars locally,” Ittner said.

More important, the activities are a way to help families cope.

“People are afraid to talk about death, and Memorial Day is a great opportunity to do that,” he said.

It still is, said Ittner, who still wants to do something special while abiding by social-distancing guidelines.

On Monday at 11 a.m., volunteers from the American Legion will cruise on motorcycles through the flag-bedecked lanes at Greenwood Memorial Terrace, located at 211 N. Government Way.

Visitors will be allowed to follow in their own vehicles.

A second tour will begin at 11:15 a.m. at Fairmount Memorial Park, 5200 W. Wellesley. Both drive-thrus will be followed by free to-go lunches of a hot dog, chips and drink.

However, there will be no public ceremonies Monday at the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake – no 40-piece band, no flyover, no speeches and no public acknowledgment of the dozens of Inland Northwest veterans who died during the past year.

“It really is unfortunate,” Lopez said.

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