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Coronavirus could change funerals — and, with them, how we handle death

The United States is beginning to follow other countries’ leads in canceling events and limiting movement, and that could apply to funeral and memorial gatherings.
Coronavirus is causing some people to consider delaying memorial services and funeral for their loved ones.

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Diane Deal realized as soon as her father, Arch, died last week that a huge number of mourners would want to pay their respects in person to the man who anchored the news on WFLA for nearly 20 years. She also realized it would be impossible.

By then, coronavirus had already been declared a pandemic. Dozens of Floridians had been diagnosed. Some cities and states had put limitations on the size of gatherings, and some other countries were locked down entirely. There, the pandemic was already changing the nature of how we handle death: Italy banned traditional funeral services; Irish officials told funeral directors to allow only close family members into services; Iranian medical workers told CNN that health precautions were upending Islamic burial traditions.

Now it was changing things for Diane Deal. She and her family decided they’d eventually have both a memorial service and a celebration of life for Arch, she said, but they have not set dates. They have not had a small, family-only service either. Avoiding crowds was the right call, Diane knew — and she said her father, who had worried about the virus, would think it the responsible one. The decision was still a horrible element of a horrible weekend.

“Everything has just piled on us,” she said.

Coronavirus has yet to dramatically alter the funeral landscape in Tampa Bay, several people who have a hand in funerals and related services said Monday. But the United States is beginning to follow other countries’ leads in canceling events and limiting movement — the Centers for Disease Control have recommended suspending gatherings of 50 or more people for eight weeks, and President Trump advised Monday that people avoid gatherings of more than 10. It seems inevitable that death will, at least for a while, look different.

Those changes could make grieving more complicated, whether or not the deceased is a victim of coronavirus itself. People have been responding to death with communal events for centuries, said David Sloane, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy and the author of a book, Is the Cemetery Dead?, which is about changes in how we handle death.

“We need to gather,” he said. “The gathering is really part of the experience of mourning.”

In a 2006 paper, The Psychology of Funeral Rituals, Paul Giblin and Andrea Hug wrote that a funeral “can make death a reality, normalize the grieving process, and introduce the possibilities for hope, imagination, and new life for survivors.”

Or, as Tom Dobies, who owns five funeral homes in Tampa Bay and has worked in the business for 50 years, put it: “The funerals are for the living.”

For many people, having a funeral is an essential part of the grieving process, Dobies said. It’s why he takes his business so personally — his funeral homes take 1,800 calls for service every year, he said, and he tries to meet with the families in every case.

His average funeral draws 45 to 50 attendees, he said. Memorial services are sometimes far larger. He has some ways to mitigate problems if coronavirus forces delays in burials and memorial services. His cooling facility can hold up to 60 bodies, and if a family asks to postpone a service because of coronavirus, his homes will do so at no extra cost. Nearly two thirds of the deceased who go through his homes opt for cremation, he said, which also makes it easier to delay services.

But the specter of coronavirus is still freshly bizarre, even for someone who directed funerals throughout the AIDS crisis, when some people wrongly believed that funeral services for the disease’s victims could cause it to spread.

“I’ve never had anything such as this,” he said.

The idea of delaying a funeral or memorial service could also be more complicated in some religious traditions. Yaser Sultan, an imam who helps arrange funerals at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay, noted that funerals for Muslims are supposed to take place as quickly as possible, with preparations including washing and shrouding. They represent a transition to the hereafter, and attendance by the deceased’s family is important.

But those traditions can adapt in the face of circumstance, like war or disease, he said. Sometimes a by-the-book burial or a well-attended service is impossible. In the case of the latter, he sees funeral attendance much like he does pilgrimage to Mecca — something that should be done when health, wealth and safety allow.

“You don’t have to be (there) in body,” he said. “You can be in spirit.”

The physical distance from funeral services may be part of the reality created by coronavirus. It may also be a glimpse at the future. Sloane, the professor and author, said he’s noted two major shifts in mourning in the past decade or so: More people live-stream funerals, and more people use social media as a gathering space to celebrate life and confront death.

Those options may offer ways to grieve during a pandemic, and they may remain in a more pronounced way even after coronavirus is under control. Major events have propelled changes in burial trends before, he said. Embalming only became commonplace in the U.S. because of the Civil War, when it was used to preserve soldiers’ bodies as they were returned home from the battlefield.

“I do think it’s possible an event like this could open people to a change,” he said.

But tradition has a powerful pull, he said. As long as the law allows it, he expects to see funeral and memorial services continue, even if they constitute only a few in-person mourners with others appearing via FaceTime.

Tom Dobies is among those who’d be reluctant to give up funerals altogether. He believes in their power. He’s noticed that fewer of his clients in recent years want services of any kind, and it unsettles him.

“To me,” he said, “that’s like a person didn’t exist.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Florida Department of Health

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