Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a dear friend. A Sister of Notre Dame for 73 years, Teresa lived among the migrant poor, devoting her life to the work of justice. Her funeral Mass was concelebrated by numerous priests, led by the bishop of her Diocese in Apopka, Florida. It was a beautiful funeral, attended by hundreds of people, some socially distanced in the church, most attending through a Facebook livestream.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed so much. We live in a bubble with just a few people, craving the company of others. We work at home, teach our own children, and wear so much protective equipment in health care settings that patients are not sure what their caregivers look like. We quickly became accustomed to alternate ways of living, dying, and mourning the dead. Some people are dying without loved ones near, saying their last good-byes virtually. Many are delaying or eliminating traditional funeral rites, opting for a celebration of life sometime in the future.
In all probability the pandemic constraints will remain for the better part of this year, so it is good for us to reflect on current modifications to funerals. Mandated COVID-19 restrictions, including social distancing, masking, size limits for gatherings and curfews when the virus is spiking, will continue to shape the way we provide funeral services. But it is crucial that such restrictions not overshadow the need for ritual or disrupt healthy grieving. While COVID-19 directives have altered the way we do things, we still make use of gatherings at churches, synagogues or the funeral home. We continue to have visitation periods for family and friends, memorials, life celebrations, and graveside services. In a word, the funeral industry like many others, has not eliminated but adapted their offerings. The Mile’s staff continues to work collaboratively with people responsible for planning a loved one’s funeral to identify what will best honor the person’s life, comfort the bereaved, and meet mandated requirements.
As with other life celebrations like weddings and graduations, something exists between traditional celebrations and having nothing at all. Some couples who planned to marry in 2020, adapted their wedding plans, others delayed. Some graduates had virtual parties; others planned things such as a “one year out” party scheduled for June of 2021. For funerals, some people have opted to wait until the pandemic is over and have a life celebration in lieu of a traditional funeral now. We need to be cautious about delaying funerals because unlike a wedding or graduation party, funerals attend to the work of grief that will not wait. Funeral rituals make death palpable and begin the work of healing. A time of visitation with a bereaved family is vital to giving and receiving the particular support needed when loss overcomes our heart. Indeed, because the pandemic has caused us to live in so much isolation, it is all the more valuable to offer visitation for bereaved families. The music, stories, readings and symbols of a church, memorial, or graveside service are balm that massage grief. Grief does not wait for a convenient time to flood our heart with sorrow, and for me, this is the single most important reason not to delay but rather to adapt traditional funeral rituals during the pandemic.
I loved my Sister of Notre Dame friend, and in attending her service virtually, I did not for a minute feel her funeral was any less than it would have been had I been physically in the room. Moreover, her sister who delivered the eulogy praised the love they felt surrounding them from afar. I needed to acknowledge the gratitude for Teresa’s life that had touched mine so deeply. I needed to say good-bye and Godspeed to someone I loved. The emotional closeness I experienced most definitely dwarfed the physical distance. Being able to attend funerals virtually is an option begun during the pandemic that will remain a viable option for families long after the restrictions are lifted.
Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialect between the two.