Rituals surrounding death provide solace and comfort. Ceremonies, such as funerals, hold our challenging and complicated emotions and provide space for us to acknowledge and accept the reality of death. But when we are not able to be physically held by those outside of our own home or partake in our religious rituals and death traditions, how do we process the death of those we love? Even as states reopen and larger groups are permitted to gather, some people are still apprehensive about convening. In this unfamiliar and uncertain moment, how do we mourn?
In “Ministry During Pandemic: From Awareness to Implementation,” Dr. Naomi Paget writes that rituals have a way of articulating what we cannot express, yet what our hearts desire and long to say. In the midst of a pandemic, Paget notes that sacrifices must be made to our rituals. Yet amid sacrifice, creative changes are being initiated as we find alternative ways to honor our grief during this time. Religious leaders, funeral directors and even fashion designers are among those finding compassionate ways to honor the dead.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently conducted a funeral service over Zoom for a man who died of COVID-19. The only family member able to be physically present at the funeral service was the brother of the deceased as the man’s wife and sons were quarantined. To fulfill the Jewish ritual of family members filling the grave with dirt, Timoner used her cupped hand to scoop the dirt and held it in front of the camera before pouring it over the casket. After the funeral, Rabbi Timoner led the community in observing shiva, a seven-day mourning ritual, via Zoom. She shared with The Cut that she opened the virtual shiva by saying, “If we could we would be with you. We would be encircling you. We would be holding you.”
Rev. Cody J. Sanders, pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., suggests that loved ones record and share stories or special remarks at sites that held significance to the deceased, such as “a back porch rocking chair, a local fishing pond, a beloved hiking trail, the site of a first date or a family vacation or a long-held job.” Technology tools and apps such as WhatsApp and Google allow mourners to create calendars of memorialization and plan activities that everyone can participate in virtually on the same day. Ideas range from visiting a favorite park of the deceased on one day to baking the deceased’s favorite cookie recipe. LifeWeb 360, New Narrative Memorials, and GatheringUs can also be used to create memorial scrapbooks and connect with family and friends.
In the village of Oregon in Wisconsin, a funeral home has started “Hugs from Home,” through which words of sympathy and support are written and sent to the funeral home where they are then printed and hung on chairs in the chapel. The words stand in lieu of the loved one’s presence at the service. The signs are strategically placed on the chairs to aid in social distancing efforts and to honor those who would have been present for the service.
Christine Mickelson, managing director for Cress Funeral and Cremation Services in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, said that Cress has facilitated in-car visitations by building a platform that angles and allows family members to view the casket and deceased from their vehicle. Family and friends tune their radios to a specific station where background music plays as they view memorial boards and projected photographs of the deceased. Once at the graveside service, the pastor’s words are broadcasted through the station so people can participate from their vehicle.
Pia Interlandi, a fashion designer who dresses the dead in custom biodegradable burial garments, created a YouTube video to share creative and innovative ways to honor the dead through clothing. Understanding the importance of physical touch in this moment, she suggests the creation of three dimensional casts of the deceased’s hand for the family to hold. Similarly, three dimensional casts of the living can also be created and placed inside the casket of the loved one. Other ideas include creating buttons out of the deceased’s clothing and spraying them with a favorite perfume, an idea reminiscent of Victorian era mourning jewelry. A shirt of the deceased may be worn backwards to symbolize a hug.
To create ways for the living to continue their bond with the deceased, Briana Root and Julie Exline suggest in “The Role of Continuing Bonds in Coping With Grief,” looking through photographs of the deceased, displaying an image of the loved one, writing them letters to express emotions, and enjoying foods that bring back memories of them. Imagining what advice the deceased would give when making a difficult or challenging decision, finishing a project the deceased was working on, or taking a trip the deceased always wanted to take are also ways to honor the legacy of the loved one.
However one decides to honor the dead, the virtual funeral collective, made up of doctors, nurses, scholars, funeral home directors and more, say it is important to “remind families that there is no single correct way to memorialize a life.” Dr. Melissa Flint, whose research focuses on thanatology, said in Rolling Stone that, “this is a time to recognize that we will do the best that we can, until we can do better.”
We do not know how long our grief and mourning practices will be altered, but when the pandemic is behind us, we will have an array of compassionate and imaginative ways to honor those we love, sprung from our deeply rooted sacred rituals and traditions. For now, families and individuals are doing what they can, and that is enough.