A deadly infectious disease has spread throughout the world, the death toll has started an awful climb that experts tell us is just beginning, and across the cultures of earth even the cherished customs of the funeral itself are at risk.
“The way we grieve is going to be completely changed because of the coronavirus,” Lianna Champ, a grief counselor and funeral director based in the UK, told the BBC. “I think physical distance from the actual funeral service could actually become quite normal for us moving forward. We’ve got to adjust to this new way of thinking and being. The world has changed, society has changed – and we need to realize that when something like the coronavirus hits the world, we need to change not just our everyday lives, but how we die as well.”
We have written about the culture of death regularly at Digital Dying, and we have written about disease, and war, and peace, and love. Death is often an occasion for the human spirit to shine, and the creativity of customs and traditions to blossom. But as the virus sweeps the globe, the way of death has been altered.
In Italy, which has been particularly hard-hit by the virus, the Guardian reported that “As of Wednesday, Covid-19 had killed 2,978…all buried or cremated without ceremony. Those who die in hospital do so alone, with their belongings left in bags beside coffins before being collected by funeral workers.”
In Iran, sacred funeral traditions have been reluctantly abandoned. And in the United States and the UK, the virus has created awkward and difficult moments as health officials decide just what is the appropriate way to move forward with funerals.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued detailed guidance to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). “As you are aware, the situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is fluid and official CDC guidance is continually evolving based on new information from scientists and public health officials,” an NFDA website stated. The site has information on everything from embalming to the transport of remains to protections for those in the death care industry.
“At this time, the CDC states that decedents with COVID-19 may be buried or cremated according to the family’s preferences,” the NFDA page states. “However, you should ‘check for any additional state and local requirements that may dictate the handling and disposition of the remains of individuals who have died of certain infectious diseases.’”
The CDC has its own helpful page with complicated questions and answers concerning the spread of the virus. “There is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19.” However, the CDC also notes, “People should consider not touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19.”
The CDC advised that those who are ill and at-risk, such as the elderly and immune-compromised individuals, should be encouraged to stay home. Although it all begs the question, with travel restrictions, and reasonable fear of flying among many, how would a mourner even get to a funeral on the other side of the country, let alone the other side of the world?
One of the options being encouraged in the coronavirus crisis is the live streaming of funerals, a topic Digital Dying recently wrote about. “As you think about planning for the event, limit the number of people if possible, use live-streaming options and perhaps have only immediate family on hand,” Dr. David Berendes, an epidemiologist with the CDC told a National Funeral Directors Association webinar.
In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear explicitly addressed the funeral ceremony. “Even though a funeral is something that everybody wants to go to,” the governor stated, “we’re just at a place right now where that can’t be the case.”
In Iran, whereas of Wednesday 988 people had died of the virus, the situation has become particularly difficult, as the virus continues to disrupt the sacred codes and norms of the funeral ceremony. “Bodies that arrive for burial are not washed as they should be under Islamic custom,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Nor are they wrapped in traditional white cloth.” Rather, bodies are wrapped in plastic cloth and lowered into mass graves.
Grieving families in Iran are not allowed to enter cemeteries, and clerics no longer come to pray over the dead. Instead, their prayers rise out of portable speakers. “Uncles, fathers, and daughters say their farewells from far away,” stated the Los Angeles Times article. Iran’s coronavirus outbreak first emerged in the Iranian city of Qom, a major Shia pilgrimage site. Some of the corpses are being washed with water and soap by volunteer clerics. Many are then taken and buried in deep mass graves. Cemeteries are dusted with copious amounts of lime. “Some graves had the names of the deceased written on paper, others cardboard,” the paper reported. “A testament to the suddenness of a novel virus that has swept the world.”
Few stories are more harrowing than that reported Thursday in the New York Times of a single New Jersey family that has lost three people to the virus. “Grace Fusco — mother of 11, grandmother of 27 — would sit in the same pew at church each Sunday, surrounded by nearly a dozen members of her sprawling Italian-American family,” the paper reported. On Wednesday night she died after contracting the coronavirus. Just five hours before, her son had died from the virus. Five days before that her daughter had died.
“Nearly 20 other relatives are quarantined at their homes, praying in isolated solitude, unable to mourn their deep collective loss together,” the article reported. Many of them are on respirators. “It is so pitiful,” a cousin who is acting as the spokesperson for the family told the paper. “They can’t even mourn the way you would.”
The coronavirus originated late last year in Wuhan, the large capital of central China’s Hubei province. In early February, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) ordered swift cremations and prohibited funeral ceremonies for the dead, according to Al Jazeera. “If family members of a CoV-2019 patient refuse to show up for the procedure or refuse to comply, and medical institutions, cremation parlors have failed to persuade them to do so, then the body can be cremated with the medical institutions’ signature,” the order stated. “And public security authorities overseeing the area must carry out their relevant work accordingly.” At the time, some epidemiologists called this an overreaction. Though now other countries are taking similar measures.
In the northern Italian town of Bergamo, in the mountainous Lombardy region at the foot of the Alps, The Sun reported last week that a funeral was taking place every thirty minutes. The mortuary at the local hospital is full and bodies are being placed in churches. “We’ve had to close Bergamo cemetery for the time being to cope,” said Giacomo Angeloni, the councilor in charge of cemeteries in the town. “I have to thank my staff for what they are doing in the face of this tragedy. Certainly, we never imagined having to deal with an emergency on this level.” On Wednesday, 475 deaths were reported in Italy from the virus.
The Guardian reported that CFB, the Lombardy region’s largest funeral provider, has carried out almost 600 burials or cremations since the beginning of March. “In a normal month we would do about 120,” CFB president Antonio Ricciardi told the paper. “A generation has died in just over two weeks. We’ve never seen anything like this and it just makes you cry.”
The corpses of those who died at home are being kept in sealed-off rooms for days as funeral services struggle to cope. There is “a shortage of coffins,” the Guardian article noted, “as providers struggle to keep up with demand and funeral workers becoming infected with the virus are also hampering preparations.” In Bergamo, the mayor’s office has encouraged the cremation of people who die of coronavirus, and the local crematorium has begun operating round-the-clock.
Hospitals in the Lombardy region have adopted more stringent rules regarding the handling of the dead, who need to be placed in a coffin straight away without being clothed due to the risk of infection posed by their bodies, the paper reported. “Families can’t see their loved ones or give them a proper funeral, this is a big problem on a psychological level,” said Ricciardi, the CFB president. “But also because many of our staff are ill, we don’t have as many people to transport and prepare the bodies.”
The Guardian article revealed the following grim story, passed on from a teacher in Bergamo. “Yesterday, an 88-year-old man died,” the teacher said. “He’d had a fever for a few days. There was no way to call an ambulance because the line was always busy. He died alone in his room. The ambulance arrived an hour later. Obviously, nothing could be done. And since no coffins were available in Bergamo, they left him on the bed and sealed his room to keep his relatives from entering until a coffin could be found.”
“Morgues and health institutions are collapsing,” one funeral home co-owner told the Washington Post. “We were absolutely unprepared for an emergency of this kind.”
The obituary section in one northern Italian newspaper, which used to take up just one page, now runs to ten pages. “These are our great elderly who are dying,” one top Italian newspaper editor told the Washington Post. “That they should go like this, it’s deeply unjust.” And to add to the injustice is the lack of traditional decorum around the death. But even small threads of formality can help hold a society together. The Post reported that for a while, the Italian newspaper editor wondered whether the obituaries should be bunched toward the back of the paper, to reduce the emotional toll on people reading. “But,” stated the Post, “he decided people needed to see what was happening.”
The Irish Times reported that families will be allowed to say goodbye to the deceased in the coffin, but cannot kiss the body. “Close family members of people who die from coronavirus will be allowed to attend their funerals, but only under strictly controlled conditions, according to new guidelines,” the paper reported. “Families will be able to say goodbye to their loved ones in the coffin but will not be allowed to kiss the deceased.”
Initially, there had been confusion because the Irish Association of Funeral Directors had stated that all funeral services for coronavirus victims should be postponed, limousines for the transport of families and bodies should be halted, and the deceased brought straight to the crematorium or cemetery. These guidelines have been changed, but the new ones point out the clear risk of arranging a funeral for a person killed by the virus.
“Close contacts of the deceased may have been exposed to Covid-19 infections,” the Irish Times article noted. “So funeral staff should limit their physical interaction with them through physical separation from members of the public of at least one metre. They should also avoid handshaking, ask families to designate a single point of contact and carry out conversations by phone where possible.” But what, one wonders, is a funeral without hugging and handshaking. The new norm, I suppose.
The Health and Safety Executive, which regulates workplace health, safety, and welfare in the UK, stated that cremations were not required for infection control.
As one Kentucky newspaper noted, the global coronavirus pandemic has brought everything to a screeching halt—except death.
And there are places where the virus’s toll will inevitably be felt in an even more significant way. In Iraq, the BBC reported, “The UN has warned that many are living in camps where conditions and outdated infrastructure mean that Covid-19 could potentially spread easily.” There are other spots around the world many times more vulnerable than the United States, although in the present flood of coronavirus news we are receiving little information from them. It does not mean that we do not care.
This is a “collective tragedy” the Italian newspaper editor told the Washington Post. Somehow, we must see, we must express, we must seek out, through death we must try to live. “We have to have a process of closure, of rituals, especially when we’re grieving – it requires an intimacy with those we share our lives with and those we love,” Lianna Champ, the UK grief counselor and funeral director told the BBC.
She recommended that if you were grieving and unable to attend a loved one’s funeral in person, to “reach out to people and be honest in your communication, in sharing with people how you feel.”
“As human beings we need intimacy,” Champ added. “And if the coronavirus forces us onto our phones and emails then that’s how it will have to be – but we need to reach out to others and be there for each other.”
Please, everyone, stay safe and stay well~~*