A long haul trucker passed away last week and was brought into the care of the funeral home. This cement hauler was also a husband, a father, and at 70 years old, he was still a son of two living parents. They and their family both were fearful if they left the nursing facility, they would not be allowed back in. The vast cinder block of pain and sorrow the parents expressed over the phone could split, expand, and blow us all up.
“We need to see our boy.”
These six simple words were all I needed to hear. Immediately, the casket was loaded into the funeral vehicle and within an hour’s time, the bereft mother and father were having a private viewing of their son’s body in the carport of their adult foster care. Leaves from a weeping willow delicately danced above the natural wood casket. I stood six feet behind them, so badly wanting to reach out and place my hand on their backs, wanting to pass my heart onto them.
My funeral home’s mobile viewings have happened for a few weeks now, and are always because of the same situation: a loved one has passed away, the immediate family members have a compromised immune system and have been advised not to leave their place of residence, but are drowning in the sorrow of missing their chance to say goodbye.
Wretched reality in the time of Covid-19. The pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of life, and the way family members and friends mourn deceased loved ones is no exception. Families are desperately open to alternatives they would never have considered.
Some funeral homes are allowing drive-through funerals during the stay-at-home orders. These parlors have a custom-built casket stand at window level permitting the casket to lean toward the window enough that people driving by in cars can see the deceased. My repurposed goat barn funeral home can’t accommodate this offering, so instead, I have become a one-woman traveling visitation service.
A woman suffering from Multiple Sclerosis is confined to a wheelchair and cannot leave her home. She wants to see her beloved husband, Raymond. I arrive at her home on my way to the cemetery, and see her waiting in the front window, balloons tied to her wheelchair and a big smile on her face. She talks to him through the window for almost an hour after I excuse myself to wait in her near-by garden.
Frankie passed away at home. The van that arrived to bring her into the care of the funeral home now brings her back home, but this time in a purple shroud. The family asked for a slow drive-by through their circular driveway, the luscious scent of evergreen sweet box sarcococca filling the air. Grandchildren hold marker pen signs, and adults salute her with raised glasses in the sign of a toast. “We love you, Frankie!” was yelled more times than I can count. All the neighbors give me a thumbs up.
“A good funeral,” says Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker in Milford, Mich., “is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”
I became a funeral director because as a child, loss defined my world. Over a fleeting period of two and a half years — in the home we all shared — one family member after the next, died. My daily life work is to invisibly hold the griever’s hand as they walk their journey of loss. The coronavirus pandemic challenges me to figure out how to comfort mourning families, but from a distance. And in this period of the unknown, we all carry the inherent knowledge that we are holding each other’s hand, although invisibly, because we are all in this together.