Russell Beare was a rum-and-Coke guy to the very end.
In his 103rd year, when the retired financial adviser was finally laid up in a home, his grandson Brent Conlin would smuggle in some of the active ingredient on the theory that, when you’re 103, what the hell.
Before he died in mid-March, of causes unrelated to COVID-19, Mr. Beare accomplished many things in a long life that saw him evolve from a fruit farmer with a bad heart to a wealthy benefactor of his local hospital in Markham, Ont.
But when it came time to mourn his grandfather, Mr. Conlin’s thoughts turned, as they often do in moments of grief, to something simple: the old man’s favourite drink. It’s what Mr. Conlin would be drinking at the funeral, anyway.
“You want to have the tears, the toast – have a rum and Coke for him. Tell some war stories and say goodbye.”
He still hasn’t had the chance. Mr. Beare’s funeral has been postponed indefinitely, like so many others, as government rules on physical distancing to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disrupt large gatherings of all kinds – including rituals of mourning.
Today, funerals in Ontario cannot be attended by more than 10 people. Every province and territory in Canada has similar laws around the size of gatherings, hastily passed, though in some cases not quickly enough. A funeral home in St. John’s became the source of Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest outbreak, with roughly 150 cases of COVID-19 traced to services at the home between March 15 and 17.
Not only across Canada but across the world, mourning has been turned on its head. COVID-19 hot spots from Italy to Washington State have banned funerals outright, while New York City has accelerated burials of unclaimed remains in a mass grave on an island off the Bronx.
These measures have left many families in emotional limbo, unable to comfort each other, memorialize lost loved ones and achieve the closure that funerals can bring. Others have encountered a strange new world of physically distant mourning.
Zac Willette, a Minneapolis-based chaplain who recently hosted a 500-person webinar on “distance funerals and complicated grief” amid the pandemic, believes it’s important to find ways of grieving together during this period of self-isolation.
An Indian-American friend of his whose uncle died recently (he was COVID-19 positive) recreated the traditional Hindu circumambulation of the funeral pyre by walking around her laptop at home while the service streamed online.
“It’s in our DNA to grieve together,” said Mr. Willette, who founded the end-of-life care non-profit Allay Care Services. “And it persists because it works – because it helps.”
Of course, some traditions cannot be reproduced digitally, and memorial services conducted in person are now often marred by distancing rules that interfere with traditional gestures of consolation.
Toronto resident Tammy Zaldin doesn’t know who attended her father’s funeral in mid-March, for example, because she didn’t want people sharing pens to sign a guest book.
The funeral home in Paris, Ont., that hosted the service for Jason Gormley’s grandfather on March 16, meanwhile, posted signs saying, “We ask that you refrain from hugging or shaking hands.”
Fear of contagion made Miriam Beamish miss her grandmother’s small funeral altogether. The service was held in late March at Toronto’s Bathurst Lawn cemetery within 24 hours of Sally Rose Freidman’s death at 91, in keeping with Jewish law. Ms. Beamish, a single mother of a three-year-old boy, didn’t want to hire a babysitter who might have the virus, so she stayed home. “I have a lot of guilt about [that],” she said. “But I didn’t want to take the risk.”
Since then, there has been no proper shiva for Ms. Freidman – the Jewish tradition in which family and friends visit close relatives of the departed to offer condolences for seven days. That has been a blow. “People come, they bring food, you’re never alone – it just makes the process a lot easier.”
As long as she can remember, Ms. Beamish visited her grandmother’s house for breakfast on Saturday mornings and often stayed for sleepovers. “She took such good care of all of us,” the 36-year-old said. Now, she has not even been able to visit the cemetery where her grandmother was laid to rest; it is open for funerals only.
“It feels like a bad dream. It feels like it can’t even be possible,” she said. “I guess because I didn’t go to the funeral, I guess maybe it hasn’t really sunk in that my grandma’s gone.”
The deferral of mourning and remembrance that has taken place in so many private lives has also happened at the level of the state. On April 9, the annual commemoration of Canadian soldiers seizing Vimy Ridge during the First World War was replaced by the laying of a simple wreath at the battle’s soaring stone memorial in France. Canadian Governor-General Julie Payette acknowledged that the change was prompted by the pandemic, which has hit France particularly hard and forced the country into lockdown.
As governments grapple with how to regulate these rituals, so do Canadian religious authorities. On March 16, the Anglican diocese of Ontario stopped all public funerals in its churches. A week later, the moderator of the United Church of Canada discouraged even small graveside ceremonies.
Some clergy have continued performing private services, despite limits on their size and intimacy. In late March, Judith Alltree, an Anglican priest in Toronto, presided over a small memorial for a young woman who had died suddenly after giving birth to her sixth child.
Rev. Alltree said she felt obligated to give the family a chance to come together at such a painful time.
“It is damaging not to grieve,” she said. “For me to turn down that funeral … In that moment, if I had said, ‘No, I can’t,’ I should have walked away from my work right then.”
Still, the service was deformed by the need to practise physical distancing. There was red tape on the pews of the funeral home to mark where mourners were allowed to sit. At the cemetery, family members stood far apart, scattered for yards and yards, so Rev. Alltree had to almost shout. Most poignantly, a close, loving family was unable to hug.
“It was one of the saddest funerals I’d ever been to … because they couldn’t hold on to each other,” Rev. Alltree said. “The fact that people are trying to respect that rule, despite what it does to them emotionally, is pretty remarkable.”
Of course, many families are choosing to postpone funerals rather than conduct them in such straitened circumstances – often choosing cremation, if their religious traditions allow it, so the interment can be done later as well.
But others are getting creative and using technology to bring grieving relatives together.
Funeral celebrant Anne Archbold recently conducted a natural burial in suburban Minneapolis for a lifelong environmentalist named Charlie, with the funeral home live-streaming the ceremony on Facebook.
Ten close friends and family members gathered in person at a little stand of trees to lay Charlie to rest, lowering their masks only to speak. They took turns placing tulips on his body, which was wrapped in an orange shroud and laid over the grave on planks of wood. Soft guitar music played in the background.
Meanwhile, family members watching along on Facebook left comments. “My heart aches,” wrote one. “Best uncle ever!!” “Hi from Oregon.”
“Love you and miss you forever, my beautiful uncle!” wrote a woman named Simone. “I appreciate being here, even if remotely.”
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