Home Funerals in the COVID-19 Season of Funeral Cancel Culture
Saturday’s sunset marks the final hour of Grover’s life. With his last breath, the family members sitting bedside throughout this tender transition entwine their hearts and arms and melt into each other. This is the recognizable ritual of life, love and loss.
An hour or so passes before his brother stands up to fetch champagne for a toast. After touching stories from grandchildren are shared and music is played, Grover’s wife gathers towels to bathe him and lays out a fresh change of clothes. Neighbors leave food on the front porch. His daughter positions a laptop for a video visitation of her father for his extended circle of family and friends.
When Grover’s son phones me at the funeral home to ask if they’ve forgotten anything, I remind him to designate someone to regularly snap photos who will feel at ease documenting the journey, even if the moments are very personal and photography seems intrusive.
I am the town mortician; however, I am not heading across town to bring their loved one back with me to the funeral parlor. My role is to supply gentle guidance over the phone and in person to help this family in their time of grief keep Grover at home for a family-directed funeral.
Death in the time of COVID- 19 means states are banning public gatherings to mourn their loved ones, regardless if their deceased loved one tests negative for coronavirus. If select funeral homes or churches do allow people inside their buildings, mourners are limited to a handful. Social barriers are so very heartbreaking at such a profound time of loss when families can’t have sufficient ceremonies and sacred time to say goodbye, and putting the funeral off for a few months isn’t always the best answer.
Funeral cancel culture by virus is alive, but the families I serve are returning to traditional ways to say goodbye to their dead. Social lockdown has breathed new life into the healing and comforting experience of a home funeral.
The National Home Funeral Alliance takes the position that “Keeping or bringing a loved one home after death is legal in every state for bathing, dressing, private viewing, and ceremony as the family chooses. Every state recognizes the next-of-kin’s custody and control of the body that allows the opportunity to hold a home vigil.”
Up until 150 years ago, when a family member passed away, the steps were modest: Prepare and place the body in a humble wood box. For a short time, display the body at home for neighbor visits, and then bury the coffin in a family plot on the family farm or in a small-town or church cemetery.
Once embalming became a profitable service industry, and the business of funeral directing was born. Soon, it became standard practice for the undertaker to quickly whisk a decedent out of the private home and to a funeral parlor, where the deceased was restored to look as lifelike as possible.
Grover’s family is determined to not let COVID-19 cancel his funeral. They opt for a home funeral due to the gift of time: visiting with each other and his body, to have the ceremony they choose in a relaxed place, and feel the necessary closure. They want to laugh and cry and tell stories and share memories — in their own space, and in their own time.
As the world publicly lives through another day of a universal health crisis, this family, who is privately walking in the gray haze of grief, only sees this as the day Grampy Grove passed.
Elizabeth Fournier, a fourth-generation mortician, is the owner of Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, Oregon and the author of the Green Burial Guidebook (New World Library).