That was before the pandemic.
When he died on March 15, I had to tell the family that they couldn’t have a funeral at all. They were devastated. But Gov. Jay Inslee (D) allowed gatherings of less than 50 people if they observed social distancing, which made an outdoor graveside service possible. I got the cemetery to agree to a brief viewing, which typically occurs at the church or at our funeral home. A few days later, the state said no funerals were allowed; after that, officials said members of an immediate household could attend a funeral together, but only if they stayed six feet apart from one another. Now it’s weeks later, but the family has decided to hold out for the large service and burial they had planned. And this beloved husband, father and grandfather is still awaiting his burial.
Funeral directing is already an odd profession. But during the coronavirus pandemic, it has become surreal. While our work is deemed essential — by the authorities and by all of humanity, day in, day out — the outbreak has changed virtually everything for us: We’re arranging to bury the deceased, and people who work at our funeral home are the only witnesses to the burials. We can’t let extended families visit with their loved ones one last time. We take elaborate, painstaking precautions when handling the bodies of people who died of covid-19, to avoid spreading the epidemic.
And we’re aware, through it all, that there is more death to come.
My funeral home often serves families who opt for cremation or “green burials,” without embalming, metal caskets or concrete vaults. These mourners aren’t afraid of spending time with their loved ones’ bodies in their homes, to grieve on their own time and in their own way. But with this outbreak, families are no longer in control when someone dies. Covid-19 is in control.
Multiple times in the past three weeks, I have had to tell people they will not be seeing their deceased family members. It’s excruciating. Washington state was hit hard, and early, by the virus, with the first case announced on Jan. 21; as of Monday, 195 people had died here, and there were nearly 4,900 confirmed cases.
On March 25, I was asked to assist a family in saying goodbye to a dear grandmother who had only arrived in the United States three months ago from her home in Ukraine. In normal times, her family would have had a large church service, followed by an open-casket graveside service, which is customary in the Ukrainian tradition. Skipping the church service was hard enough, but not being at the graveside because of cemetery restrictions was just too much for this family to bear.
After many phone calls with our compassionate state licensing office, we found a way for immediate family to say goodbye in a parking lot a quarter-mile from the cemetery, with an open-casket viewing in our van, surrounded by family cars for a modicum of privacy.
It wasn’t what they wanted — it wasn’t what they ever would have envisioned — but it was something. And now, “something” is about the only thing we can offer families seeking connection and a place to express their grief.
We were able to help a family honor a beloved mother and artist with a home funeral; after ceremonial bathing and cloth shrouding, her daughter placed her body in a cremation casket adorned with her own artwork. But the grieving daughter had to abandon plans for the witnessed placement for cremation, where relatives watch the body be placed into the cremation chamber, because new restrictions meant the crematory could no longer allow families to be involved.
Then there are the deaths caused by covid-19.
We have always worn gloves, covered bodies with plastic and sterilized surfaces that a body touches. But handling the bodies of covid-19 victims requires our staff to wear additional personal protective equipment — masks, goggles or face shields, and gowns. We have to double-shroud the body, masking the deceased to prevent droplets from being expelled during movement, and we place identification labels on the outside of the shroud so we don’t have to access the body.
We have to avoid all the surrounding surfaces at the location of a covid death, usually a nursing home or a hospital. Our staff must be mindful of not rubbing past corners or hallways, curtains or other surfaces they may touch before they don gowns and gloves. Additional sterilizing of all surfaces in our care center takes time — time we may soon not have as the number of deaths increases — and it reminds all of us with even more clarity that we have chosen a profession that every day makes us confront the nature of mortality, including our own.
For all deaths, the pandemic has forced us to change our practices. We used to meet grieving families to discuss funeral arrangements in person, with warm, fresh-baked cookies and snuggles from our comfort dog, Bindi. Since mid-March, we just call or take Zoom video chats, depending on what they prefer.
We no longer light the candle in the room dedicated for families receiving a loved one’s urn. Instead, we ask families to call us from the parking lot so we can deliver the urn to their car and obtain a signature of release. Once we do that, we return to the office and thoroughly wash the clipboard and pen so they’re sanitized for the next family.
As a full-service funeral home, we’ve always ordered death certificates for our families. We used to go to our local vital-records office two or three times a week so we could provide a death certificate to the family when they received the urn or to follow up after a burial. Reading a family member’s death certificate can be emotional for people, and we try to be there for them if they need us.
But now the vital-records office is closed indefinitely to maintain social distance. Our families get death certificates mailed directly from the county after we order them online on their behalf.
All of these touchstones — these moments of connecting with our families — are being replaced by this insidious virus. My hope is that it’s only temporary, and over soon.
As the number of deaths rises throughout the country, I feel like I’m standing in the eye of the storm. So many things have already changed so rapidly in the past two weeks, and now we’re bracing for what is very likely to come. I text messages of support regularly with a friend who works at a funeral home in New York — currently the center of the outbreak in the United States. But I may be right there with her soon, as Washington state’s cases are projected to peak by mid-April.
Our modern death-denying culture has made us fearful of our dead. Usually, we can balance fear with love, and show compassion to those who died as well as those left behind in grief. Covid-19, sadly, is now making us fear the living, as well. We’ll need courage to make it through together.