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Covid-19 has forced local families, funeral directors to rethink final goodbyes

From left, Karen, Mark and Ken Katz bury their mother, Linda Rochkind Katz, at the Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park, in Clarksburg, Md. They are watching on their phones as their rabbi leads the burial service from his home.
From left, Karen, Mark and Ken Katz bury their mother, Linda Rochkind Katz, at the Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park, in Clarksburg, Md. They are watching on their phones as their rabbi leads the burial service from his home. (Glenn Easton)
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The day before Shirley Ann Donovan’s children, grandchildren, extended family members and friends were scheduled to gather at a Southeast Washington church for Donovan’s funeral, they received a phone call from the funeral director.

In an effort to curtail the fast-spreading novel coronavirus, they were told, D.C. officials had imposed new social distancing restrictions that capped the number of people who could attend at 50, a figure that included church and funeral home staffers.

Donovan’s three sons — in the midst of grieving — suddenly were faced with deciding which mourners had been closest to their mother and should be welcomed inside Friday’s service, and how to gently turn others away.

“My mom touched so many lives. She was well loved,” said Donovan’s son Thomas Randolph, 48, of Washington. “It was disturbing. I wondered how this was going to go. I mean, 50 people? That’s almost the total number of people in my family by itself.”

The pandemic has stripped away many of the comforting aspects of funerals. No hugging or handshakes. Grieving relatives and friends are forced to sit in pews by themselves or with only one other person. Repasts where mourners gather to share a meal have been canceled.

Government leaders in the District, Maryland and Virginia have tightened restrictions on gatherings over time as concerns about the virus have increased, meaning a changing set of rules. At 10 p.m. Wednesday, the District began limiting funerals to 10 people. Officials in Maryland and Virginia had already reduced funeral attendance to 10.

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The restrictions have prompted some families to look to alternative ways to celebrate a loved one’s life. Some are turning to technology such as live-streaming or Web applications; others are holding private funerals with plans to have a public service weeks — or months — down the road.

Within this new and changing dynamic, religious leaders and funeral directors are scrambling to implement precautions that will keep mourners safe, while still reflecting religious customs and rituals and providing solace for families.

Marche S. Morris, chief executive of Morris Funerals and Cremation Services, worked with one family who had a service for a loved one last week at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Md. More than 200 people attended.

They decided to forgo the traditional guest book, which tended to attract a line of people. Morris’s employees spritzed sanitizer into the hands of each person who walked into the sanctuary. And after walking past the casket, guests were quickly ushered to pews by white-glove-wearing ushers, no hugs allowed.

“We know you want to be close together. For me, not able to hold you and hug you, it’s hard. But we don’t have a choice right now. But we do have a choice in Jesus, and He will get us through this,” the Rev. Barbara Riley told the mourners.

After the service, Ebenezer’s cleaning crew, armed with disinfectant, descended on the sanctuary.

After the Fort Washington funeral, Morris received notification from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) detailing how funeral directors in the state should use “reasonable efforts” to keep such gatherings at 50 people or fewer.

In a March 16 order forbidding any gathering of 50 or more people in Maryland, Hogan wrote that a business owner would face a fine of $5,000 or a year in jail. A day later, Hogan’s office said that the order did not “prohibit” funerals but that funeral directors should undertake “reasonable efforts” to meet the limit. Now, that limit has decreased to 10 people.

“The attendance number seems to be changing daily,” Morris said. “I have to explain to every family and show them the executive order if I have to.”

Morris received information about the District’s 50-person restriction a day before the Donovan homegoing service. So she had to quickly devise a plan to accommodate as many people as possible.

On the morning of the service, about 40 members of Donovan’s family were ushered two by two through the front door of Delaware Baptist Church for the wake. Morris then directed the relatives out of the sanctuary to a waiting area.

Morris’s staff explained the regulations to other mourners waiting outside and allowed them to enter in small groups, view the body and acknowledge — but not hug or touch — Donovan’s sons, who were standing by the casket. When one group exited through the church’s side door, another was brought in.

As the time for her mother-in-law’s service neared, Randolph’s wife, Natarsha, stood in front of the church doors in a slight rain and apologized to the 100 or so people gathered. Standing with a list of people her husband and his brothers had identified, she called the names of those who could come inside. They were the people the family decided were closest to Donovan, who had died of cancer at age 79.

“It was very hard to choose,” she said. “I tried to count, but there were people standing everywhere, even across the street because no one could stand close together. I just asked most of the younger guys if they didn’t mind staying out during the service. We shortened the service so it wouldn’t be long.”

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Some families and funeral directors have utilized technology to circumvent the challenge of assembling at a funeral during a pandemic.

When Linda Rochkind Katz died last week, following 18 months of steadily declining health, her three adult children feared feeling isolated at a tiny funeral, with just a trio of chairs.

This was not the kind of service befitting their mother, who was 75 when she died. Katz was a teacher who held a doctorate in Spanish literature, worked as a docent at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, served as a Potomac, Md.-area PTA leader and was a bar-bat mitzvah tutor.

“I thought it was incredibly depressing that there wouldn’t be anyone there to hug us or to honor my mom in the way they would want to and in the way she deserved,” said her daughter Karen Katz, 45, of New York.

As the Katz siblings considered what to do, a cousin suggested a way for family and friends across the globe to attend the funeral and later the at-home mourning service: by broadcasting them virtually through the online ­conference-meeting application Zoom.

Within hours, they had spoken to their longtime family rabbi, Bruce Kahn, and other staffers at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md.

But they had to move fast, since Jewish tradition calls for immediate burial — ideally within 24 hours. Judaism teaches that this helps mourners face the death and lets the soul of the departed fully move from its earthly, bodily state.

“We immediately all felt a lot better and realized it could be a lot better than we thought. It wasn’t a lonely thing at all,” Karen Katz said.

The rabbis from Temple Shalom created a link for the Katzes and family and friends.

Karen, Ken and Mark Katz, holding their cellphones, stood alone at the graveside watching Kahn telephonically officiate from his Chevy Chase home while 150 family members and friends tuned in online.

“We felt that. The picture makes us look sad and alone, and it didn’t feel that way at all,” Karen Katz said. “Knowing so many people were going to be with us felt pretty tremendous.”

Kelsi Graham, though, is still awaiting that feeling of providing a fitting goodbye for a loved one. Last week, in the small town of Oakland, Md., about four hours northwest of the District, Graham and her family were faced with deciding who could attend the funeral of her 74-year-old grandmother, who died of a severe type of diabetes. So Graham made a decision. The 27-year-old gave her slot to one of her grandmother’s friends.

Patricia “Patty” Graham had attended a church with about 100 members and had planned a large funeral for herself.

“None of those people got to come,” Kelsi Graham said.

The family now plans to hold a memorial service where all of her family and friends can pay tribute in the months ahead.

“Later on, once this all gets cleared up, we’re going to have a celebration of life for everyone who did not get to attend,” Graham said. “We still plan to honor her the way she wanted and the way she deserved.”

Erin Cox and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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