Saying a final goodbye to a loved one is never easy. In the best of times, planning a ceremony to formalize that farewell is a time of raw emotion flooded with memories.
Navigating the task during a pandemic can feel as if you’re trying to build a sandcastle with a pair of chopsticks. Long-held plans and final wishes go unfollowed due to emergency regulations to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
That makes for an unforeseen mix of grief and frustration.
No matter that the loved one passed away from causes unrelated to the pandemic, virtually every detail connected with a funeral is touched by COVID-19.
Restrictions on the size of gatherings limit funerals to immediate family only, leaving many mourners on the outside looking in. And at a time when the only way to share and exorcise grief is through the comfort of an embrace, social distancing rules keep us 6 feet apart and wearing a mask.
At first, the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” directives banned funerals altogether. It took more than a week to work out a set of regulations to allow them to go forward.
“There was about a week and a half where it seemed like things were changing on the hour,” said Leila Bradish, the general manager for Spokane Dignity Memorial, which operates five funeral homes in Spokane, including Ball & Dodd and Hazen & Jaeger. “Those families that were caught in that vortex of information and how we were going to do things, I feel for them. The majority of those families that we cared for postponed services. Or just did something with the immediate family. No services.
“My staff and I do not live in a world of ‘no.’ We live in a world of ‘We can make that happen.’ ”
The rules were later clarified to allow only immediate family members to take part.
Further complicating matters, cemeteries that are privately owned can have their own rules. For example, the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake does not allow graveside services or military honors.
Holy Cross Funeral and Cemetery Services routines have been slashed and quarantine measures no longer allow immediate family at graveside services.
“It’s one kick in the shins after another,” Bradish said. “The devastation really goes back even farther than that, however. I think it starts when a loved one goes into the hospital or long-term care facility and family is unable to see them.”
Bishop Thomas Daly canceled Mass across the Catholic Diocese of Spokane during the pandemic, and rituals surrounding death have been curtailed. Only the diocese’s youngest priests can visit dying parishioners to administer last rites, and rather than using a thumb to administer blessed oil to the forehead, a Q-tip is used that must be burned after use.
There were no changes to the regulations governing funerals in the Phase 2 reopening.
“There have been some people, a good percentage of the bereaved, who have opted to have graveside services and then hold a memorial service at a later time, when things have been relaxed,” Bradish said.
Limitations on the size of the service is the primary concern, especially for large families. More and more often, services are streamed online.
“We have done a number of services on Facebook Live,” Bradish explained. “When the family does that, it can be streamed on a personal Facebook page, and that makes it a private ceremony. If we stream it on our website, on the other hand, it’s more of a public service.
“We’ve also done services on Zoom. To be honest, we’ve had a few technical difficulties, but I must say we have found most people to be incredibly gracious and understanding.”
One of the more difficult challenges funeral homes face is having to tell a grieving family that they just cannot offer the kind of service their loved one planned or requested.
“They may well have made plans so their children don’t have to,” Bradish said. “It’s so hard to say no in a situation like that.”
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