“This is just like when the AIDS happened.” One of my senior colleagues remarked to another as we all shuffled out of the morning meeting, weary and more than a little ‘over it.’
For the past month, our days have been punctuated by speculative smalltalk between conference calls with corporate leadership and public health officials, receiving almost hourly COVID-watch 2020 updates, each impossibly more dire than the last.
At the behest of said leadership, we’ve spent the better part of an hour that morning spitballing the proper turn of phrase for asking families to disclose whether they, or the deceased, may have come in contact with COVID-19:
Our funeral home is dedicated to serving all families, regardless of the cause of death. However, in order to protect our staff, and those who would come to pay their respects, I need to ask if you, your loved one, or any other member(s) of your immediate family may have been exposed to, or have tested positive for, COVID-19.
I was born in 1989, at the tail end of the AIDS crisis. My only experience with the disease, or any major public health crisis, was an aunt. I can’t remember anything about her as a person, but my sisters and I all recall eating cheese crackers on a scratchy, bleached-white deck while my mother and grandparents scattered her ashes into the ocean on a sunny day. It feels surreal and slightly out-of-body having to ask those probing questions to grieving families. It’s like I’ve been cast to play a part in a Truman Show-esque plot. My mission is to endear myself to the stranger across the table, offer aid and understanding at the cost of a confession. I wonder now how my grandparents felt sitting on the opposite side of the table from an imposter, like me, while making arrangements for their daughter’s cremation.
With each new news cycle, New York City descends a little deeper into frenzied hysteria. Families are forgoing chapel services, instead opting for private graveside burials and direct cremations. Religious organizations, across all faiths, are stuttering their doors. Folks call by the dozens in a blind panic, suspicious of the person they sat next to during a service months ago who looked slightly flushed. Were they sniffling from crying, or was it coronavirus? Could the funeral home call this person and find out? Will the funeral home supply mini hand sanitizers for all attendees? Are there separate pens for each person to sign the guest register?
I am a pragmatist by nature. When I started writing this post a week ago, I attributed this national milieux of unease to typical flu-season histrionics, much like the swine flu and SARS scares that came before. However, seven days later, my coworker’s comment sticks out in my mind for a whole new reason. Yes, people are concerned (rightfully) about the transmission of this virus, but the sanitizers and pens are simply emblematic of the riddle posed by those same questions: “How do we grieve?”
When we can no longer gather, the rituals and traditions that are the foundation of funerary customs become disturbed in such a way that ceremony is no longer an option. So, how are we to honor the lives of those who have passed? Where do we, the survivors, find closure?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m sure they exist, but they’re big and heavy, and awkward to hold all at once. So, I will offer what I do know:
- There is currently no known risk(s) associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died from COVID-19. However, individuals who are close contacts of the decedent may themselves be infected with or incubating the virus, and should limit in-person gathering. Consider streaming any formal services, or holding them at a later date.
- The virus is transmitted via respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing. Once prepared, manipulating the body by hugging or hand holding will not cause you to catch the virus. Other activities, such as kissing, should be avoided before, during, and after the body has been prepared. Feel empowered to perform your own preparation – washing, dressing, grooming. It is your prerogative.
If washing the body or shrouding are important religious or cultural practices, families are encouraged to work with their community cultural and religious leaders and funeral home staff on how to reduce their exposure as much as possible.
- Cremation is not automatic. If the deceased was diagnosed with, or suspected of having COVID-19, you can still bury them. They can also be embalmed if that is your wish.
For more information from the CDC regarding COVID-19 and funeral services, please click here.