Mary Thomas died from Alzheimer’s disease last November, but her children decided to wait until spring to hold the 77-year-old’s memorial service, so far-flung family members could fly in from around the country.
But by then, the world had constricted.
“We had a meaningful service when our dad died in 2016, but we were held captive in that early stage of grief for Mom,” said her son Tony. “As time dragged on, we knew we needed something to mark that she was gone. But we didn’t know what or how to do it.”
It’s a dilemma facing countless Minnesota families that have lost a loved one during the pandemic.
Large gatherings — where anyone can pay their respects to the dead and show their support to survivors — aren’t possible and may even be dangerous. (Several funerals around the country have been identified as super-spreader events.)
Without the ability to stage a traditional funeral, families must decide whether to have a small service or a virtual service, or postpone gathering until after restrictions ease — whenever that might be.
In the best of times, planning a memorial service can be heart-rending, disorienting and confusing. It’s also essential.
“We need to grieve the loss so we can begin to find closure,” said Darlyne Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association. “It’s natural for people to want to comfort one another.” Since the advent of COVID-19, “we have to be flexible to find ways to do that safely.”
In the first weeks of the lockdown, funeral services came to a halt. Later, Minnesota Health Department regulations limited in-person attendees at services in churches and funeral homes to 10. Restrictions have since eased and the number of socially distanced guests has expanded, varying by a venue’s size and capacity. Still, many families are wary about holding a gathering.
That’s why video conferencing funerals have gained in popularity. Platforms like Zoom allow people who can’t be physically together to experience a live or taped memorial.
Going online isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, however.
“Much depends on the dynamics of the relationship between the survivors. Needs vary, even among family members who share the same degree of kinship,” said Prof. Michael Lubrant, director of the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota.
Whether it’s electronic or in person, Lubrant thinks most families benefit from staging some sort of ritual before too much time passes.
“The guiding principle I take in my work is, ‘Grief shared is grief diminished.’ It’s important for survivors to receive support at the time of loss, when those painful feelings are particularly acute. They need to invite people who had relationships with their loved one to come together to share and reminisce.”
Rather than postponing a ritual for an unknown future date, Tony Del Percio, director of the Grief Resource Center at Bradshaw Funeral & Cremation Services, said many mourners are better served by finding a way to mark their loss.
“When people put their grief on hold, it’s an open wound that doesn’t heal from the inside out. They’ve just put a Band-Aid on the raw pain,” he said. “With the virus and the lack of social support, a lot of people right now haven’t faced their grief and are walking around in a dark fog.”
Lubrant suspects that some families who schedule small or online services early in their grief are hoping for a physical gathering at a later time.
Adding a second, later ritual is not without precedent.
“In our grandparents’ day, they couldn’t complete the rite in the winter because the technology didn’t exist for the ground to be broken for a grave,” Lubrant said. “Cemeteries had receiving vaults where caskets were stored and the grave would be opened at a later point. We may review and reclaim this rich tradition and postpone rites of committal for remains or ashes.”
But Sue Kruskopf isn’t so sure.
“I read the obituaries and right now so many say ‘a celebration will be held at a later date.’ I suspect a number of those services will never happen,” said Kruskopf, co-founder of the online funeral-planning site MyWonderfulLife.com.
“It’s a shame. We have an inherent need as humans to do something to honor that life, but the pandemic is upending everything” she said.
Angela Woosley, a licensed mortician, end-of-life doula and natural death care provider, founded Inspired Journeys, a startup that allows her to consult with families seeking alternatives to traditional funerals and burial.
While she worries that the arrival of COVID-19 will make services more difficult to execute, she also sees this as a time when rituals are evolving to bring more comfort.
“Ritual can feel like a really loaded word, but it doesn’t have to be grand and profound. It means taking action with intention and marking moments that honor your grief as it shifts and morphs,” she said. “There are ways to make informal rituals celebratory and uplifting. We need to carry the burden with others as we accept the reality of the death. That is balm for the soul.”
Woosley was hired by Mary Thomas’ family to coordinate their final tribute. Woosley helped the Thomases create a livestreamed memorial that started with a slide show of Mary’s life followed by video memories by her children, grandchildren, in-laws and friends.
“Our focus in the past few years was with her dementia and all the changes she was going through,” said her son Tony. “It was good to hear about her whole life, with pieces from her childhood and stories about what she was like when we were kids.”
Tony delivered a live eulogy, then he and his nephew picked up their guitars for a contemplative duet of “Starman,” one of Mary’s favorite songs.
The Thomas family may still gather for a graveside service at a later time, when Mary’s ashes are interred with her husband’s at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
But for now, her son is content with the farewell.
“We would have missed something if we wouldn’t have done this,” he said. “It was much more meaningful than I thought it would be. I was surprised how connected we felt. We paid tribute to who she was.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.