How Christian Funerals Change Under COVID-19

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As COVID-19 protocol expands across the country, people are taking to their homes for everything from schooling their children, remote work meetings, and online exercise classes. All over the world, families and friends are having to come up with new ways to connect because of the shelter-in-place requirements. 

However, one area that brings particular hardship during isolation is coming “together” to honor a loved one who has passed away. Funerals, typically a time full of physical comfort and collective mourning, are now prohibited as group events continue to be shut down. Depending on the state, some families can’t even attend the burial of their loved one. 

Considering you’re saying goodbye to a loved one in such a sensitive time, it can be difficult to get the same level of closure via the internet. But, in such uncertain and unprecedented times, it’s essential to come up with new ways to talk about and honor the deceased. To do so, our team sat down with Reverend Nancy Niero, hospice chaplain and ordained clergywoman in the United Church of Christ. 

Niero has officiated dozens of funerals and collaborates with families to come up with a sacred ceremony celebrating the life of their loved ones. In this interview, we talk to Niero about how to maintain some of the typical Christian funeral traditions while also adapting to shelter-in-place requirements.

Q: Can you give us a general overview of how traditional funeral services are being affected by COVID-19?

A: As the country is going into deeper isolation, many states are declaring that the public nature of funerals must adjust. However, there are a lot of moving parts, and not every state is the same when it comes to the funeral home industry. 

Because of technology, I am hoping those who are far can host virtual services for themselves in their home. That is a powerful presence to give. In states that have decided to ramp up quarantine, funeral homes are hopefully able to do live streaming with family and friends. One of those services happened here last week. 

Q: How are you seeing this affect families responsible for organizing a funeral for their loved one?

A: There is a strong sense of immediacy and as well as a lot of change occurring— a lot to keep up with from state to state. For some families, it’s manageable, and for others, it’s a bit more difficult. Of course, digital funeral services are just not as fulfilling. 

And if they are allowed to gather in person, many are still trying to figure out how to address social distancing at the gravesites. It has to be so hard for families to be six feet away. Or for some, because flights are grounded and due to safety concerns, they may not be able to even travel.  

How we are grieving with loss is a whole new way of being for us. Culturally, as a country and planet, we are looking at grief in a whole new way. Some haven’t had to craft a funeral service. It’s multi-layered, adding to that experience of losing someone. The idea is that we are all dealing with new ways of processing our own grief compounded by the distance and isolation.

Q: What religious considerations need to be made when planning a remote Protestant funeral? 

A: As in all denominations, everyone takes something different from their tradition. As Christians, right now, we honor the death and resurrection of Jesus. The story of Jesus’ death is such a strengthening place of Christian traditions. It’s a hopeful story.

The declaration of us being resurrection people, using Jesus’ death as a context for comfort and that there is more to death than we know, this eases us. For people who are grieving, this can be quite comforting. We have someone who teaches us how to mourn. We have places in our text and these experiences on how we are together in community.  

Can you delay a Protestant funeral for months later, if necessary?

A: We will have many more opportunities after this period to host a proper funeral, but with this first blush of grief for a death that just happened we need to find other ways to grieve. This is not going to be the last time, this is just going to be the first time. We need to claim that space of sacredness for ourselves and create what we can. 

My concern would be that people are not going to be able to discover that for themselves. Even if it’s just by yourself. If you just heard someone you loved died and you cannot be with that family, you are alone. We need to find the sacred in that. Perhaps take a ritual cup of tea, think about how important that person is in your life, and send your prayers to the family. These are the places where we really need to name that now. 

Q: Has much of the funeral planning process changed? 

A: Here is something that hasn’t changed. When I meet with families, we are co-creating the experience together. I want them to tell me how we can find the most meaning for them, the most comfort. We focus on what is most sacred — none of that process has changed. 

One of the pieces that grounds all of us in meaning is creating experiences. Right now, families who aren’t able to gather together have to get creative.

The big question is around “how do we craft this place where we lost someone?” 

Q: What are things you suggest families do in lieu of an in-person memorial? 

A: This calls for a time to create sacredness for ourselves. Whether we go sit and have dinner for someone who died in our family or a funeral home live streams the service. However we do this, it is all meant to be comforting.

However, there is not a lot of live streaming going on right now in the funeral industry and very few gravesite services. As we craft these home services for ourselves, we do this with a great compassion and intention for ourselves. And for those who are gathered, talking about the beloved one who died around a table together can be helpful. You could sing their favorite song or share words of love. All of this is so important. 

This requires the greatest amount of intention for people who are grieving so profoundly. This is where our comfort can come from. There will be a funeral later.   

Q: What’s been something significant that has changed in how people are grieving their loved ones?

A: A lot of people are not being able to say goodbye. They’re not able to hold their loved one’s hand, brush their hair, see them at their funeral for closure. The entire passing is done without their family being present.

Every effort is being made to be present, but people who are at home are struggling. Human connection of touch is what we’re used to during this time. We could always get to the hospital, but we can’t right now. Now nurses are providing that connection, Facetiming with families so they can say goodbye. 

How sacred is that? These are people who are here to save lives, yet are stepping up to offer additional connection for families. Hospital chaplains are trained to do this work, but because of the unprecedented amount of deaths from the virus, other people have to help. The way we mourn and grieve together matters. 

The idea of how we process from different places right now, even saying goodbye over video, requires entirely new types of conversation. Again finding the sacred in this right now is key and asking how we do this in the moment— this is going to ultimately get us to the other side of this.

Q: How are you seeing the grieving process change after the pandemic?

A: Before this is all over, we will all know someone who has had COVID-19 and has died. I know someone now in Denver who is clinging to his life. When we are out of this, our circles will become smaller. And because of this, how we grieve will dramatically change. 

We are being reminded of how important it is to develop a sacred experience to say goodbye. We must do this for ourselves, even if it’s just a gathering over video. We will always have the ability to share stories, pray together, sing together, or sing someone’s favorite song. We can always, no matter how far we are, provide a place where people can speak about their loss. Whatever that time is, again — that is sacred work.  

Q: What is an example of something sacred you’ve seen in honoring a loved one?

A: I was reminded the other day of one of the most beautiful services I’ve ever been to for an incredible matriarch of a family. I showed up at this service for a woman in my faith community, I had never met the deceased. And the whole service was her favorite poems that she had selected along with who she wanted to read them at the service.

 I still remember sitting in the pew in love with this grieving process. She did exactly what her mother did when her mother died. I was so completely moved because it says so much about this woman.  I thought to myself, “You love this poem? I love this poem!” And then I thought, what does it tell me about you that you love this poem? It created an opportunity for a connection with a complete stranger. It was incredible.

Q: What advice do you have for people responsible for organizing a remote service?

A: People think they’re not equipped for this, but in reality, they have everything they need. Because they love that person and these are simply acts of love. And it all comes out of love for someone who died. I hear it all the time that they don’t know what to do. 

But you always have stories. You always have your love. You have the life you spent with them and just simply remember that time, taking time to think about it — that is all you need to honor them.  

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