'Complicated' mourning during pandemic could linger for years to come, funeral directors say
No rush to book funerals as restrictions end and live streams remain a mainstay
The mandates may be lifted but COVID-19 continues to shape how families across Manitoba mourn.
Funeral directors across Manitoba say the COVID-19 pandemic has so altered what it means to mourn that it might be a while before there is any community consensus of how and when to have a funeral.
"It is very complicated, and I really think that we are going to be dealing with the complicated grief that we've all experienced over this pandemic, and especially for people that have experienced a death in this time," said Karen Leggat, manager of Cropo Funeral Chapel in Winnipeg. "We're going to be dealing with it for years to come."
With all public health orders now lifted in the province, those grieving the loss of a loved one are free to hold gatherings of whatever size, regardless of guests' vaccination status and without requiring the wearing of masks.
However, the freedom brings new considerations for at least two different groups of mourners: well-wishers attending funerals and funeral home workers.
A group of families now faced with a plethora of considerations are those who postponed services because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Scores of obituary notices published throughout 2020 and 2021 ended with a sentence that a celebration of life event would be held "at a later date when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted" or simply "funeral at a later date."
However, funeral directors say they haven't seen a rush to schedule postponed celebration-of-life events now that restrictions have been lifted.
"It can be difficult emotionally to go back to a place of having a service," Leggat said.
"I think there are going to be some people that will decide not to go back and have a service, that may … just put it behind them." she said.
Mike Vogiatzakis, general manager of Voyage Funeral Homes in Winnipeg, has a similar view.
"The sad thing about this is, if you lost a loved one two years ago, it's hard to have a service two years later because time heals all things," he said.
Vogiatzakis, who estimates his funeral home handles as many as 50 to 80 deaths a month, says he's not seeing an influx of people trying to reschedule postponed celebrations.
"A lot of people who were planning on having celebrations, I don't think that's ever going to happen unless they have something that's private — maybe it's a lake or their house or backyard barbecue or something," he said.
There might be several other considerations in some cases.
Michael Gibbens, manager of Green Acres Funeral Home and Cemetery, says it's hard to say what families are thinking. Still, he says, where a service has already been postponed, families tend to think more of the needs of everyone they want to attend before setting a date.
"They could also work with the convenience of family members who might be travelling for vacation purposes or other convenience factors," Gibbens said.
Another factor, Gibbens says, may be the "unbelievable winter" Manitoba has had this season.
"Why would folks be planning to have a burial service or a graveside service … looking at the amount of snow we've received and the amount of cold days that we've received when there is no immediate need to have it?" he said.
A season of change
Some funeral directors believe both families and their guests are still considering whether a large gathering is safe, whether it's for people who died during the restrictions or more recently.
Maria Lesage, manager of Adams Funeral Home in Notre Dame de Lourdes, says she recently arranged a few funerals open to the public, where the turnout was less than expected.
"We've found very few people from the public coming to the funerals, so they're not as big as before the pandemic, obviously, where we had a few hundred people, now maybe with just the family and a few extra friends," she said.
While "it's great that the families are finally able to have something," Lesage said, she thinks "everybody is still a little scared or uneasy."
However, she thinks things will change with the weather as many seem to feel safer outdoors.
"So yeah, we're anticipating the summer will probably be busier with outdoor burials and more celebrations," Lesage said.
She noted that her funeral home has "quite a backlog of funerals" because of COVID-19. The room where ashes are kept under lock and key is now "quite full," much "more than usual." The ashes are stored at the funeral home at the request of families who planned to have ceremonies or who couldn't collect them.
Jeff Christiansen, owner of G.R. Carscadden Funeral Chapel in Virden, Man., also expects a summer boom. He suggests the hesitation to schedule funerals immediately might be due more to a lingering fear of COVID-19 than of the cold weather.
"I think as [restrictions are] beginning to be lifted, some people are just buying themselves a little more of a period of caution before they, you know, have a service. And I think they're hoping that by doing it outside in the spring and summer, they will encourage more people to come," he said.
Christiansen expects "we'll see a slow and cautious return to larger gatherings."
If his assessment is correct, helping families to finally complete the formal part of the grieving process will mean a period of intense work for some funeral service providers.
It might be "a bit of an operational challenge" for providers to serve those who postponed services during the pandemic who are now ready to proceed, Christiansen says, as well as the typical number of families who will need funeral services for deaths occurring at that time.
Technology: from necessity to convenience
The directors say some families might also be considering whether a large gathering is still worthwhile or even necessary, thanks to the explosion of live streaming as an integral part of the funeral experience.
Christiansen says perhaps 80 per cent of families now request live stream service, up from 20 per cent before the pandemic. He says that when people were able to have gatherings at intervals during the pandemic, they were smaller in cases where the families chose to live stream.
"So, people who are cautious and anxious about their safety and about their health, if the live streaming option is available, they often can, at least right now to stay away from the service," Christiansen said.
Michael Gibbens, manager of Green Acres Funeral Home and Cemetery, pointed to live stream as "one big change" used to accommodate people for "pandemic reasons," which he believes will stick around "for convenience reasons into the future."
Live streaming's advantages
Gibbens says live streaming is better able to accommodate families living all over the world, which he says is significant for people of different cultures. He thinks, however, that as people remember what it's like to be together, large gatherings will make a comeback.
"If the family is gathered for a luncheon or some sort of gathering after, live streaming doesn't always accommodate, and it certainly does not accommodate the same feeling of meeting a person face to face — the opportunity to shake a hand or give them a hug or give them a kiss, that sort of thing," he said.
Vogiatzakis says "having a Zoom service is not the same as being at a funeral service."
"It's not the same for the family. It's not the same for people … a service is not a movie," he said.
Time will tell whether the funeral trends forced upon people during the pandemic will linger or more traditional ways of mourning return.
There are some things COVID-19 has added to funerals which, Christiansen believes, most families, guests and funeral workers across the province will always expect at future services.
"I don't think we'll ever stop seeing hand sanitizers disappear, right?" he said.
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