“You feel you almost got a little shortchanged — for the career that he had and the service he had for his country,” said his son Michael Engel, 60, of Park City, Utah.
Families in mourning are still struggling to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on an experience that is deeply wrenching under the best of circumstances. Funeral directors, bracing for a second wave of covid-19 deaths, said they are better prepared than they were in the early days of the pandemic but just as unsettled by the virus’s effect on the way people mourn.
“What it’s changed is how folks do funerals and grief. And it’s been the worst thing to watch,” said David Storke, who owns and operates four funeral homes in Virginia, including a chapel that handles military burials at Arlington.
In the spring, funeral directors scrambled to find protective gear amid a shortage of gloves and masks and uncertainty about how the virus spread. Some became overwhelmed as the death toll soared. Storke recalled talking to a funeral director in Upstate New York who stopped answering the phone because there was nothing he could do.
“He had 23 deaths in one day. I feared, ‘Oh, my gosh — we were going to have to bring in some portable, temporary refrigerated morgues,’ ” Storke recalled.
Virus cases have been rising in recent weeks and could overtake levels reached when the pandemic began its sweep through the United States earlier this year. The region has recorded at least 9,877 deaths and more than 506,000 infections since the pandemic began.
For funeral directors, the renewed pace of infections feels like a repeat of the early days, but with important differences. Personal protective equipment has become more available. People have become accustomed to wearing masks, keeping their distance from others and attending services online through Zoom and other apps.
Funeral homes have also invested in technology, buying flat-screen TVs for remote viewing or live-streaming of services. Storke set up a small FM radio transmitter approved by the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast services for mourners in the funeral home’s parking lot.
“We’ve become a little more comfortable with how we operate,” said Matthew Webb, a funeral director at Loudoun Funeral Chapel and Crematory in Leesburg, Va. “We don’t do open viewings for covid patients, but we still try to give families the chance to see their loved ones as best we can.”
Some pandemic-related adaptations will continue until the virus is under control, and some will probably become permanent, funeral directors said. In the past, for example, consultations for a parent’s death would generally involve only adult children living nearby. Now that online meetings have become routine, funeral directors often include faraway relatives in those discussions. Funeral homes are also assisting families who opt for private burial or cremation now and postpone more-elaborate memorial services for later.
“There’s always been a joke about wedding planners and funeral directors,” said Dutch Nie, an officer with the National Funeral Directors Association whose family has operated a funeral home in Ann Arbor, Mich., over three generations. “The difference is that wedding planners get six months to plan the most special ceremony, and we get three days to do it. Now we’re helping families plan for a memorial service next year.”
That can include renting tents for outdoor services, dinner receptions and travel plans.
Perhaps the trickiest task has been keeping up with fast-changing public safety directives that limit the size of public gatherings.
“It’s so unpredictable with the executive orders,” said Marché Morris, owner and chief executive of Morris Funerals & Cremation Services in D.C. “I myself make that my priority to consistently check.”
Funeral directors said one of the most difficult things is telling families and friends that capacity limitations mean they may not be able to attend a visitation or funeral for a loved one. Those who do attend must often keep their distance from everyone else. And that defeats the purpose of funerals, Storke said.
“Nothing you do at a funeral or a memorial service is for the dead guy one bit. It’s all about helping the family get where they need to be,” Storke said. “At a time like that, what means the most is your friends stopping by a visitation or coming to the funeral and hugging you and sharing stories. And that’s the part these folks can’t do.”
The Engel family imagined a funeral that would bring together friends and family and honor the rear admiral’s distinguished military career with all the pomp and solemnity that comes with a burial at Arlington. Engel, who was 92 when he died May 10, loved the Navy. He also loved a good party, his children said.
“We always knew that he wanted to be buried in Arlington,” said his daughter, Michele E. Rinn, 56, who lives in Arlington County.
Engel, who was born in Jacksonville, Fla., in March 1928, joined the Navy when he was 18, eager to become a pilot. He flew anti-submarine missions during the Cold War and A-4 Skyhawks during two combat tours in Vietnam. Over the course of 175 combat missions, he earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He narrowly escaped death in a fiery incident aboard the USS Oriskany that left 44 crew members dead, including four pilots in his squadron.
Yet for all his prowess as a fighter pilot, Engel was known for his sense of humor and his paternal style of command. He looked after his staff in ways that not only might have advanced their careers, but also might have made them better people, colleagues and family said. When a surprise party was organized for him, several Navy buddies were invited and told their mission was to roast Engel and roast him good.
“And they couldn’t even come up with good stories to make fun of him,” Rinn recalled. “It turned into a love fest. I remember one of the admirals said Dad treated everyone in the military like they were family members.”
Said his son Michael Engel: “He had a great ability to coach you. If you did something wrong, you’d get the great ‘faith, trust and confidence’ speech, almost to the point you’d want him to get the belt and give you a spanking. The gist of it was, ‘I always want to have faith, trust and confidence in you.’ ”
Asked once what he would have been if not a rear admiral, Engel replied: A seagull — so that he could live and fly on the water he loved.
As a two-star flag officer, Engel was entitled to an Arlington funeral with full military honors, including an escort of uniformed sailors and pallbearers, a military band, a cannon team and rifle party to fire volleys in salute, a horse-drawn caisson and a bugler. Instead, the funeral took place Nov. 23 with a lone drummer in lieu of the band and a limited number of attendees wearing masks inside the Old Post Chapel. Some friends and Navy buddies, either because of age or infirmity, stayed away.
Some small but poignant touches were lost, too. When it was time to present the flag to Engel’s wife of 64 years, Elizabeth “Tan” Engel, and express a nation’s thanks, the presiding officer had to place the folded triangle on a table instead of in her hands.
“It was disappointing,” Rinn said. “I mean, it worked out. We had a nice day. But, from experiencing what other people go through with funerals and how people are able to experience it, it’s disappointing.”