Mourning from a distance, hugging from afar

Published 5:04 pm Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The coronavirus outbreak not only affects how we live. It even changes how we with deal with death. Last week I saw this up close when a friend lost his battle with cancer.

With gatherings banned and residents ordered to shelter in place, all that’s left of what’s normal at such times is the most basic rituals, and they’re usually graveside, invitation only.

The new social distancing arrangement is hardly the community send-off mourning families could have expected a few weeks ago. Gone are the lines of visitors winding down the funeral home steps. Gone, too, are the filled rows of mourners, list of eulogizers and long procession of headlights through town. Sadder still is the pandemic’s necessary effect on how we comfort the living. Remember when you could share an emotional embrace? Now, that’s risky behavior.    

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At the service I attended at Shady Grove in Hazlehurst last Friday, those wishing to pay their respects hung around the periphery of the cemetery. Most stood with plenty of elbow room behind a chain link fence skirting the road.

The widow and her two daughters sat alone on the first row of chairs under the tent. Other family members were scattered behind. There was no music. No video montage. No meal in the church’s fellowship hall to provide closure.

But there was a guest register.

The funeral director asked mourners to sign it and to be sure to keep to a safe distance when we did. Such instructions made it clear that funeral directors have a tough new role — graveside behavior police. They must enforce a new reality, one that pits traditional expressions of sympathy against a pandemic. 

How can we share grief without a handshake or an arm around a shoulder? Settling for air hugs and fist bumps seems wrong. At the very moment the bereaved rely most on the comfort of human touch and presence, it’s absent, compounding their sadness.

Some families are choosing to postpone memorial services, while others are using Facebook livestreams and other technology to broadcast graveside services. One creative set of siblings in New York chose to honor their mother with a drive-by visitation. The funeral home placed her casket outside and surrounded it with floral arrangements and her photos. The family stood under a tent and greeted vehicles as they passed through.

In hard-hit Spain, some funerals are drive-through, too. I watched video footage of a priest walk up to a hearse, say words over the casket, then send it on its way while mourners were left standing several feet behind. CNN said the priest was conducting these services every 15 minutes, but it’s even worse in Italy. Many dead are laid to rest with only an officiant and a funeral home employee in attendance.

Out at Shady Grove, though, some things were business as usual. Pallbearers in suits carried the casket while onlookers swatted at springtime gnats. Tears coursed down checks when men shared memories. A big sister told me he was “her heart.” More than one in attendance shook their heads over a good man’s passing.

After a prayer, the preacher reminded those close enough to hear of something important to mourners at any time in history, especially this socially-distanced one: God is always close. He quoted words from Psalm 46, assuring the widow that God is her refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 

And with Easter around the corner, it’s good to remember that Christians don’t need to be concerned about crowd sizes or eulogies or how many sprays of funeral flowers are fading in the April sunshine. Our friend sure wasn’t. Just seven weeks ago I recorded his thoughts about impending death, thoughts fixed on the hope of resurrection.

“I’m unafraid, I’m perfectly at peace with this. It’s going to be OK.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.