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‘You can’t get any closure’: How the coronavirus is changing Catholic funerals
One of her closest friends was laid to rest, but all Anita Nobrega Franco could do was sit inside her car and look out the window to see her friend’s mourning relatives standing around her grave.
“You want to get out and go to the family. You want to reach out and hug them. It’s not easy,” Franco said of her emotions during the March 30 graveside service of her friend, Maria Jose Ott, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Social distancing and restrictions on public gatherings had prevented Ott’s family from having a Mass of Christian Burial. Only a few family members were allowed at the gravesite during a brief prayer service. Other mourners had to wait inside their cars for their turn to approach Ott’s grave and say their final goodbyes.
“You can’t get any closure with a funeral like this,” Franco told Our Sunday Visitor a few days after the burial. “It’s extremely heartbreaking. You can’t really go through all the stages of grief. I know this is the norm with funeral homes right now, but it’s still kind of hard to accept.”
Forced to adapt
Not only funeral homes, but Catholic cemeteries, parishes and dioceses are trying to strike a delicate balance in burying the dead — one of the seven corporal works of mercy — and protecting the living from the coronavirus as the death toll in the United States continues to grow by the day.
“A lot of times, we’re just having a direct burial at the cemetery where nobody comes to the funeral home at all,” said Bill Lawler, whose family runs a funeral home in Boston. Lawler told Our Sunday Visitor that he now “meets the (grieving) family, a few people, no more than 10, at the cemetery and having prayers done there for a graveside service.”
Some dioceses still allow funeral Masses with conditions that only immediate family can attend and that they keep 6 feet apart from each other, which follows the guidelines put out by public health authorities. Other dioceses prohibit funeral Masses altogether in lieu of short prayer services at the cemetery.
“The priests can celebrate a full Mass for the deceased at the earliest possible date, or they can say one privately,” said Father Jeremy Rodrigues, the director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island.
Father Rodrigues told Our Sunday Visitor that the diocese, which has suspended all public Masses, allows pastors to work with funeral directors and families to decide how best to bless the deceased.
“Typically it can be done at the graveside, and we’re encouraging pastors to do that, though people can still come to the church,” Father Rodrigues said. “But they still have to adhere to social distancing norms. It can’t be a Mass, and there have to be 10 people or less.”
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, which has suspended all weddings and funerals in churches until further notice, caskets go straight from the funeral home to the grave, according to Msgr. Thomas Machalski, the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Bayside, New York.
“We just take the body right to the cemetery, if need be, and do a graveside service,” Msgr. Machalski told Our Sunday Visitor.
The same restrictions apply in the Diocese of Sacramento, California, which has prohibited wakes and funeral Masses in churches. Families there have the option for an immediate interment with a graveside service, or they can postpone burial until the Church is again able to offer a wake, or vigil, and Mass.
“But as the timeline for coronavirus restrictions gets pushed back several more weeks or months, I think we’re going to have more people say, ‘I don’t want to have my loved one not be buried for that long,'” said Jerry Del Core, the president and CEO of the Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services of the Diocese of Sacramento.
Del Core told Our Sunday Visitor that the families who decide to bury their loved ones sooner rather than later can still arrange for a memorial Mass in the future. Del Core added that he expects cremation to become a more popular option because it would then be easier for families to hold on to the remains until conditions allow for a vigil, funeral Mass and committal.
“This has challenged us to rethink our business, and we keep adjusting on the fly,” Del Core said.
Father Jeff Kirby, the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Indian Land, South Carolina, told Our Sunday Visitor that the Diocese of Charleston still permits pastors to celebrate funeral Masses for the deceased’s immediate family. In late March, Father Kirby presided over a funeral with less than 20 people in the church. Current restrictions made it difficult for him to offer a consoling pastoral touch.
“Normally, I’d be hugging and shaking hands with people after the Mass, but instead there is this social distancing,” Father Kirby said. “Speaking to people who are sad and crying on the phone, I normally would hop in my car and go be with them, but now I can’t. The pastoral consequences of this quarantine, which is required for our public health, are pretty serious. There are very real situations that are just heartbreaking.”
The highly contagious and deadly nature of the novel coronavirus, which is especially threatening to the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions and weak immune systems, forced Kevin Beck of Colorado Springs, Colorado, to make the heart-wrenching decision not to travel to Ohio to attend his mother’s funeral.
“How do you start wrapping your head around the fact that you weren’t there when she died, and then you weren’t there for her funeral?” said Beck, 52, who has a compromised immune system and a neurological disorder that causes constant nerve pain in his legs.
Beck’s mother, 77-year-old Nancy Shaffer, died March 12 in Cleveland after suffering for years with metastasized lung cancer and COPD. The family was able to have a funeral Mass for her in church, but Beck and his sister, who lives in Ohio, decided it would be safe and prudent that he stay home and not risk getting infected on the flights to and from Cleveland.
Almost three weeks after the funeral, Beck told Our Sunday Visitor that he still struggles with that decision, but he said his sister has reassured him that their mother would have wanted him to be safe and take those precautions.
“The mourning process has been odd to say the least,” Beck said. “Not being able to be at the funeral and mourn there, but then with all this going on and there’s so much sickness, death and sadness, dealing with all that, on top of trying to mourn my dead mother, has just been really … I don’t have a word for it. It’s disorienting, really.”
‘The challenge we have in these times’
Beck said he at least had the opportunity to go to a parish website and select the readings and music for his mother’s funeral. Modern technology is also enabling more funeral homes and pastors to livestream funeral and burial services for relatives who can’t attend. Many of them told Our Sunday Visitor that they expect livestreaming to be a permanent feature of the Church’s funerary services after the pandemic.
“After the quarantine, people have asked if we can still keep that service, because there are a lot of people who can’t travel to funerals,” Father Kirby said.
Watching a loved one’s funeral Mass in real time on a personal computer or smartphone is a consolation for those unable to attend, but it is still no substitute for the human contact that people need in times of mourning. That innate need for personal connection cannot be suppressed by a government quarantine order.
“We talk about social distancing, but in reality, when you have a mom and she’s lost her husband, her children are not going to stay 6 feet away from her,” Del Core said.
“There’s the knowledge part of this, but there’s also an emotional part, where you know you shouldn’t do it, but you think, ‘It’s my mom. I’m gonna hold her. I’m gonna hug her. I’m gonna do what people do,'” Del Core said. “It’s sort of the challenge that we have in these times.”
Franco, of Massachusetts, felt that same tug in her when she saw a lifelong friend at the New Bedford cemetery during Ott’s burial. The friend was standing a distance away outside her car, looking at everyone who visited the grave.
“It then hit me: ‘I can’t even go and hug this woman, and I’ve known her all my life,'” said Franco, who made a decision that she knew many would criticize.
“I just went up to her and gave her a hug. I just couldn’t not do it. I just couldn’t walk away from her. It was something she needed right then and there,” Franco said. “When it’s family and friends, how can you not?”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor