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Kevin Sweryd, president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association, at Bardal Funeral Home in Winnipeg on Nov. 23, 2020.

Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Tony Woods was a man who loved to travel. A retired salesman and extrovert, he would strike up a conversation with just about anyone, making friends wherever he went. But when he died in Winnipeg after unexpected surgical complications in June, the friends he’d made over the past 76 years were left to grieve alone — as was his family.

“I’m a hugger, and I can’t do that right now,” his widow, Sharon Thiessen-Woods said recently. “I haven’t been able to physically be with any of his family to share this, it’s all been telephone calls, Zoom, texts and e-mails, but that’s the reality.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic was declared last March, funeral homes and burial services companies in Manitoba have worked under some of the strictest public-health orders in the country. Now, all indoor social gatherings are capped at five, meaning funerals can have only four people plus an officiant — not even enough for pallbearers.

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“That’s the single biggest challenge, balancing public protection against families’ need to come together and grieve and say goodbye,” said Kevin Sweryd, president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association and funeral director at Bardal Funeral Home. “But if Walmart and the liquor store can have people walking in and out, and Tim Hortons has people walking in and out to pick up coffee all day, how can this not be allowed?”

Sharon Thiessen-Woods and her late husband Tony Woods in an undated photo.

Shannon VanRaes/Handout

Social-media platforms such as Facebook Live and Zoom help families include friends and relatives in funeral services, but are poor substitutes, he said. Several viewings limited to five people and spaced 30 minutes apart to allow for disinfection would give families a better opportunity for closure, he added.

“I would hate to be the person who has to make these decisions right now. Do too little and you’re going to be criticized for not doing enough, do too much and you’re going to be criticized for shutting down the economy,” Mr. Sweryd said. “But our job is to advocate for families, and only allowing one viewing doesn’t make sense.”

Mike Vogiatzakis, funeral director at Voyage Funeral Home, said he’s seen increased interest in identification viewings — which occur immediately before cremation — as mourners look for another in-person farewell. Not everyone has reacted well to the restrictions, he said, especially since gathering limits were reduced in recent weeks to five from 10.

“I had one guy tell me off at the door so bad,” Mr. Vogiatzakis said. “I’ve had to tell people, sorry, you can’t come in, because the government only allows five people in the service, which is disgusting, it is completely wrong.”

Mr. Vogiatzakis wants the province’s chief public health officer to exempt funeral homes from the current gathering limits as along as mourners wear masks and practise physical distancing.

COVID-19 case rates across Canada

Seven-day moving average of confirmed cases per 100,000 population, as of Nov. 22

B.C.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

ALTA.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

SASK.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

MAN.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

ONT.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

QUE.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

N.B.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

N.S.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

PEI

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

N.L.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

Note: the Territories have seen low case numbers since the spring, however a recent outbreak in Nunavut has led to 130 total cases.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

COVID-19 case rates across Canada

Seven-day moving average of confirmed cases per 100,000 population, as of Nov. 22

B.C.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

ALTA.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

SASK.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

MAN.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

ONT.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

QUE.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

N.B.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

N.S.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

PEI

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

N.L.

30

25

20

15

10

5

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

Note: the Territories have seen low case numbers since the spring, however a recent outbreak in Nunavut has led to 130 total cases.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

COVID-19 case rates across Canada

Seven-day moving average of confirmed cases per 100,000 population, as of Nov. 22

B.C.

ALTA.

30

30

25

25

20

20

15

15

10

10

5

5

0

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

SASK.

MAN.

30

30

25

25

20

20

15

15

10

10

5

5

0

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

ONT.

QUE.

30

30

25

25

20

20

15

15

10

10

5

5

0

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

N.B.

N.S.

30

30

25

25

20

20

15

15

10

10

5

5

0

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

PEI

N.L.

30

30

25

25

20

20

15

15

10

10

5

5

0

0

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

March

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

Note: the Territories have seen low case numbers since the spring, however a recent outbreak in Nunavut has led to 130 total cases.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Brent Roussin said that’s not possible. Manitoba has the country’s highest per capita infection rate, with 543 new cases and seven additional deaths announced on Monday. “This virus isn’t interested in how important a gathering is, it just spreads in gatherings,” he said. “Right now, our ICUs are nearing capacity and our hospitals are filling up, we need to change that.”

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Funerals have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks across Canada, including in Clearwater River Dene Nation in Saskatchewan and at a Hutterite colony in Alberta this summer. In Newfoundland and Labrador, nearly 150 cases of the virus were linked to two funerals held in St. John’s in mid-March.

Tasneem Vali, who is on the Manitoba Islamic Association’s funeral services committee, keeps members up to date on changing funeral restrictions. This has been a large part of her work in recent months and key to gaining community support.

“Families have been very good about it. They do understand why the restrictions are there,” she said. “And, as Muslims, protection of life and the preserving of life is very important.”

Still, it’s been a struggle for some to find closure, she said. The association offers grief support and has a mental-wellness team, but Ms. Vali said larger families have difficulty deciding who will participate in funeral prayers.

Ms. Thiessen-Woods said her husband didn’t want a formal funeral service, but if not for the pandemic, family from across Canada would have gathered to celebrate his life. In time, she hopes they will be able to grieve together.

Signs remind people of social distancing at Bardal Funeral Home in Winnipeg on Nov. 23, 2020.

Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

“I would dearly love to be through it, but I’m not,” she said. “There is a certain amount of prolonging, because once I get an opportunity to go and be with them, it’s all going to be fresh again, and I understand that.”

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In the meantime, Ms. Thiessen-Woods is working hard to stay in contact with her social network, reaching out to friends and family any way she can now that she lives alone. She said bereaved people should ask for help when they need it and not be afraid to be specific about the assistance they seek.

“It’s a big, big huge void to not be able to be with people,” she said. “But I consider myself very blessed compared to many people. I was blessed 36 years with somebody who I adored and who adored me.”


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