The COVID-19 quarantine has not only changed the way New Jerseyans live. It has significantly altered how our society has memorialized the deceased since the late 1800s, when, for a variety of reasons, customary home-based funerals gave way to services managed by undertakers. Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s March 21 executive order, public gatherings are limited to 10 people, including viewings, wakes, funeral services, celebrations of life and repasts. Other family members and friends watch from their homes through video livestreams.
“Many funeral directors enter the profession because we’re caring people who want to serve the community at the time of death,” said George R. Kelder Jr., CEO and executive director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, which represents 600 funeral businesses and 1,000 funeral directors in the state. “Now, instead of face-to-face conversations with families, arrangements are often being made by telephone, Skype or text — more transactional discussions than the comforting ones we want to provide. It’s outside the norm of how we typically operate.”
Kelder empathizes with the difficulty families have when choosing who attends a service and who stays home. “We’re noticing more cooperation with the numerical limitations, but families are forced to make very emotional mathematical decisions,” he said.
The changes to funeral services, the steep uptick in number of services and what Kelder said are dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment for funeral directors are taking their toll. Typically, he said, there are about 6,100 funeral services a month in the state; with COVID-19, in the first 30 days, there have been about 4,500 more. And even with crematories operating 24/7, the wait time for cremains has gone from a couple of days to two or three weeks, with mortuaries serving as holding spaces.
Tension, frustration, anxiety
“Funerals are part of the healing process and our human story,” he said. “And yet, never in 30 years have I heard the tension, frustration and anxiety in funeral directors’ voices as I have now. It’s truly a war-like environment, and funeral directors are striving to be as professional as they’ve always been. My fear is they’re too busy to recognize the stress they’re dealing with.”
Even with the limited choices that funeral directors can offer, it’s important that families continue to pay tribute to loved ones immediately following death, said Catharine Randazzo, a life coach and retired psychologist from Califon.
“What occurs during the first three days after a person’s passing is crucial to the loved ones’ ability to move from shock to acceptance,” she said. “Many of our funeral traditions have been taken away during the pandemic — and for good reason — but without doing something, I’m concerned some people will slip into unhealthy habits, such as excessive drinking.” Doing “something” could mean accepting the virtual options now and planning for memorial services later, as many are doing not only with funerals, but with weddings and graduations.
Randazzo also recommends grieving families ask for support and be willing to receive it. “If you’re a friend, say ‘Tell me how I can help,’ and if you’re the bereaved, say ‘This is what I need.’ If you can’t specify what the need is, don’t worry. Your friends and family will figure it out. If a neighbor leaves a casserole on your porch, take it; if relatives offer to virtually babysit your children by Zoom so you can grieve privately, let them. Most of all, let your loved ones hear your anguish and allow them to comfort you.”
Helping children to grieve
Joseph M. Primo is CEO of Good Grief, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that uses peer support programs, education and advocacy to serve children experiencing the loss of a relative. He agrees that grief — the emotions people experience after a loved one’s death — “won’t be put on hold” during the pandemic, but mourning, the outward expression of grief, is different today. In addition to virtual support groups and other COVID-19 child- and family-specific resources focused on resilience, Good Grief has released a 10-part podcast series, Funerals in a Pandemic: Navigating the New Normal.
“Funerals are more than a service; they’re the commencement of life without the person who died,” said Primo. “And while funerals have changed, children still need rituals as part of their grief experience. These rituals might include decorating a memory box, making a collage, creating a playlist of music that expresses their feelings, lighting candles, acts of service or sharing memories. They can provide a sense of connection with other family members who’ve experienced the loss.” The rituals could happen once or repeatedly over time, as grieving isn’t a “one and done” occurrence, he says.
When grieving children don’t have the tools, such as rituals, that they need to express emotions, they can develop physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, as well as behavioral issues. “They’re all the result of holding in grief. Children have big thoughts, scary feelings and rich inner lives, and need a safe, nonjudgmental space in which to express them,” says Primo.
Eventually, believes Kelder, funeral homes will again be able to operate and offer services in the ways that are most familiar. Until then, “the uncertainty of knowing when that will happen adds to the complexity of grieving today,” he said.