Grieving from a distance: How COVID-19 changes customs around funerals

Because of concerns about viral transmission even after death, public health authorities have imposed regulations on the way funeral homes take care of the deceased. "There's a great sense of sadness," says one mortician, about all they cannot do to help bring families closure.

'There's a great sense of sadness,' says mortician, about all they cannot do to help bring families closure

Charles Marien, seen here with his mother, Ann Luke Claxton on her 83rd birthday, says he is struggling to figure out how to celebrate her life after she died of COVID-19 this week. (Submitted by Charles Marien)

COVID-19 prevented Charles Marien from saying goodbye to his mother, Ann Luke Claxton.

Unable to visit her at her long-term care home in Westmount since mid-March, the Montreal man called regularly to get updates from the nursing staff.

But on Easter Sunday, April 12, Marien got the news he had dreaded: his 93-year-old mother was on oxygen. She died two days later.

Her COVID-19 test has since come back positive.

"I couldn't go to check on her remains at the nursing home, nor could I go to see her cremation today," said Marien, who last saw his mother just before spring break.

He said he's angry physical-distancing measures imposed by public health authorities now prevent his family from planning a memorial service for their mother.

"When will we be able to actually celebrate her life? I have no clue," said Marien.

He's stumped at what to tell people in her obituary.

Typically, the closing paragraph includes information about when and where the service will be.

"What am I supposed to say? I'll get back to you down the road? I can't do that. You don't write two obits, do you?"

COVID-19 deaths change all the rules

Because of concerns about viral transmission even after death, public health authorities have imposed regulations on the way funeral homes take care of the deceased.

In Quebec, embalming is prohibited if the person died from COVID-19, and the funeral home cannot wash, disinfect, or dress the body, nor do the hair or makeup.

"There's a great sense of sadness. We're used to, as morticians, to care [for] and bathe people. Now the family is deprived of this gentle gesture," said Stéphanie Côté, president of Voluntas Funeral Services in Dollard-des-Ormeaux.

Stéphanie Côté, president of Voluntas Funeral Services in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, said COVID-19 has changed the way funeral homes can care for the deceased. (Voluntas Funeral Services)

As soon as possible after someone dies, the body can be laid out, in a closed casket — for a maximum of three hours. This is followed by a burial or cremation. Aquamation is prohibited, and the remains cannot be interred in crypts or mausoleums.

At Voluntas, the funeral service is limited to immediate family.

Côté said sometimes, family members may not be able to attend the service because they are elderly themselves and face restrictions about leaving their home. Someone who was caring for their loved one with COVID-19 cannot attend the funeral, because they must self-quarantine, for fear of infecting others in case they are themselves infected.

"This is heartbreaking for us," said Côté. "Death always creates a crisis. Now the crisis is a bit longer because you have to cope with circumstances beyond your control."

Voluntas said it can film or record private funerals to make them available to those who cannot attend.

Other funeral homes have used video conferencing for the interment, allowing people to watch the ceremony from their cars to maintain social distancing.

Reassuring families

Many relatives of those who have died of COVID-19, have been in Marien's position — unable to be with their loved ones in their final moments.

Bridget Fetterly, president of Kane and Fetterly Funeral Home, said the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the stress and anxiety of many grieving families. (Kane and Fetterly)

This lack of closure has created a lot of anxiety and stress for some families. They want to make sure the funeral home has the right body, said Bridget Fetterly, president of Kane and Fetterly funeral home.

"Sometimes the person is transferred from the residence to the hospital and then to us, so there's a lot of movement going on," said Fetterly.

To reassure families, the funeral home is being extra-vigilant and double-checking, not just hospital tags, but asking families for photographs and checking for distinguishing marks to make sure the person who has died has been properly identified.

"It's super-important because it's a little bit crazy out there, and we are just a bit worried about mix-ups," said Fetterly.

Holding pattern

For now, Marien's mother's ashes are being stored at the Mount Royal Funeral Complex.

But he has no idea when they'll be interred in the family plot.

"We don't know when the green light will flash, as to when we can resume some semblance of normalcy," he said.

His older brother is worried physical-distancing restrictions may be in place for another year.

"That's a long way away to wait and celebrate her life," said Marien.

Before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Marien said, his mother was outgoing and athletic. She enjoyed spending her weekends in the Laurentians.

He describes her as an amazing chef and talented artist.

"We have paintings of hers all around the house," said Marien — landscapes, still-lifes, murals, even some with a Picasso-like flair.

"If I could only show it to you, I would," he said.

Marien hopes he'll be able to share his memories with his family and his mother's friends soon. But for now, there's just so much uncertainty.

"I can't do anything. The virus has shut everything down."

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