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Exploring the Natural Complications of the “WHYs” of Funerals During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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I often say that when words are inadequate, have a ceremony. However, as you well know, right now is a challenging time to fully make use of ceremonies that help grieving families.

As I draft this article in early April 2020, the novel coronavirus has brought almost the entire world to a standstill—except grocery workers, healthcare providers and, as you well know, your profession. Funeral homes and other death-care organizations are needed now more than ever. Tragically, not only are more people dying and more dismayed at-need families in need of especially compassionate and capable care, but humankind is suffering from a pandemic of grief.

At this critical moment, you occupy a critical role. We need you to lead. You have the opportunity to use this pivotal time to educate and inspire the families you serve as well as your communities about why excellent death care and meaningful funerals are so necessary when someone loved dies. Yet at the same time, given the current restrictions, you must also be creative and persistent about finding new ways of doing funerals. It’s a challenge, to be sure—but one I believe you can meet.

The “WHYs” of the Funeral

As you know, we have funerals for many essential reasons. For thousands of years, in addition to offering a way to respectfully dispose of the body of someone we love, they have been a means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about life and death.

This triangle graphic captures the purposes of the funeral ceremony. It puts the simplest and most fundamental reasons on the bottom and works it way up to more esoteric yet significant reasons. Let’s review each “WHY,” then let’s consider how COVID-19 is interfering…and what you can do about it.

Reality

It’s hard to truly accept the finality of death, but the funeral helps us begin to do so. At first we accept it with our heads, and only over time do we come to accept it with our hearts.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is wreaking havoc with this “WHY.” Many can’t visit family members who are dying (of COVID-19 or any cause) in the hospital, distant family members can’t travel to be near, and spending time with the body has also become more complicated. It’s much harder to acknowledge the reality of the death when you never see the person who died.

You can help families with this “WHY” by encouraging them to view the body if at all possible, even if only a few people can be in the room at a time. Tele-viewings are also an option. And while it’s not typically done in recent times, this is a circumstance in which it is appropriate to take photos of the body to share with family members if they request them or you believe the photos would be helpful to them. And finally, holding an immediate service, even if it has to be held online, will also help families with this “WHY.”

Recall

Funerals help us begin to convert our relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory. When we come together to share our memories, we learn things we didn’t know, and we see how the person’s life touched others.

Families aren’t able to get together right now, however, so ensuring they have other means of gathering up and sharing memories is something you can do to help with this “WHY.” In addition to offering online memorials, be creative and innovative. For example, what if the obituary suggested that the family would like to receive notes containing special memories?

Support

Funerals are social gatherings that bring together people who cared about the person who died. Funerals are in remembrance of the person who died, but they are for the living. The funeral is a special time and place to support one another in grief.

But how do people support one another when they can’t gather together? Like many of us, you’ve probably had a crash course in technology alternatives over the past month. Video meetings are so much better than no gathering at all, and you can help facilitate this. Also, encourage the family to begin to plan a larger memorial service to be held later on. This will be an essential part of helping grieving families affected by the pandemic support one another, and you can take the lead and be a part of the solution.

Expression

When we grieve but don’t mourn, our sadness can feel unbearable, and our many other emotions can fester inside of us. Mourning helps us heal, and the funeral is an essential rite of initiation for mourning. It helps us get off to a good start and sets our mourning in motion.

Because mourners can’t gather for funerals right now, they’re being deprived of a special, sacred time of expression. Funeral elements such as the presence of the body, meaningful music, and the eulogy facilitate the expression of feelings—and those elements are absent right now. Perhaps the best way for you to help families meet this need is to offer some education about the need for expressing their inner thoughts and feelings (grief) outside of themselves (mourning). In fact, I hope you are routinely educating the families you serve about all of these “WHYs” of the funeral, because that is where the true value lies.

Meaning

Did the person I love have a good life? What is life, anyway? Why do we die? There are no simple explanations, but the funeral gives us a time and a place to hold the questions in our hearts and begin to find our way to answers that give us peace.

Without a funeral ceremony, there isn’t an event that helps families embark together on this search for meaning. Instead, their grief experience tends to be more chaotic and unanchored. Many people end up feeling lost and alone. One way you can help with this “WHY” during this time is by making sure families who are so inclined are connected to a religious or spiritual leader in their communities.

Transcendence

Funerals have a way of getting us to wake up—to think about what we truly care about and how we want to spend our precious remaining days. Ultimately, funerals help us embrace the wonder of life and death and remind us of the preciousness of life.

This “WHY” of the funeral is the most esoteric, but it is ultimately the most important. A good aftercare program may the best way for your funeral home to help families work on this need over time, especially in cases when a meaningful ceremony wasn’t possible.

Perhaps the most important overall lesson you can impart to grieving families at this unprecedented time is that a funeral or memorial ceremony will transform their grief journey. It’s best to have a small service (in person, online, or a combination) right now, and a larger service when the restrictions are lifted. If even a small service right now isn’t possible, then it’s absolutely essential to have a memorial service as soon as possible. Please teach families that it’s never too late to have a ceremony, and more than one ceremony is even better in complicated loss situations.

COVID-19 has brought death and grief to the fore in ways not seen in generations. You are in the spotlight, and people are eager to listen and learn. I truly believe that now is a rare opportunity for you to educate, lead, and renew our cultural understanding of and respect for excellent funeral experiences. As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it.” So use this time to teach people the “WHYs”…and watch what happens.

About the Author

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is an author, educator, and grief counselor. Recipient of the Association of Death Education and Counseling’s Death Educator Award, he presents workshops to bereaved families, funeral home staffs and other caregivers, and teaches courses for bereavement caregivers at the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he serves as director. He provides training to cemetarians and funeral directors on the “WHY” of both meaningful funerals and permanent placement. To contact Dr. Wolfelt, email him at drwolfelt@centerforloss.com or phone him at 970-217-7069. To explore additional resources related to meaningful funerals, go to his website at www.centerforloss.com

 

THE ETERNAL OPTIMIST By Beth Dalton

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We have been lucky to be blessed with three sons. They have each brought us special joy with their individual personalities, but our middle son, Billy, is fondly known as the “eternal optimist.” I wish that we could take credit for this attitude, but it’s something he was born with! For example, he had always been an early riser and liked to get in our bed at 5 a.m. As he would crawl into our bed, we would admonish him to be quiet and go back to sleep. He would lie on his back and say in a falsetto whisper, “It’s going to be a beautiful morning. I hear the birds singing.” When we would ask him to stop talking to us, he would reply, “I not talking to you; I talking to me!”

In kindergarten, he was asked to draw a tiger. Now, while optimism is Billy’s strong suit, art is not, and his tiger came out with a crooked head and one eye that appeared to be shut. When his teacher asked him about why the tiger had one eye closed, he replied, “Because he’s saying, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid!’”

Also, when he was five, he got into an argument with his older brother about whether a man on TV was bald. Billy said, “He’s not bald. He’s like Papa. He’s only bald when he looks at you. When he walks away, he has lots of hair!”

These memories and many, many more led up to the ultimate optimistic statement. Our third son, Tanner, was stricken with hemolytic uremic syndrome on a Tuesday and died the following Sunday. Billy was seven. The night after Tanner’s funeral I was putting Billy to bed. I often used to lie down beside him to discuss the day. On this particular night, we lay quietly in the dark with not much to say. Suddenly, from the dark, Billy spoke.

He said, “I feel sorry for us, but I almost feel more sorry for all those other people.” I questioned him about which people he was talking about. He explained, “The people who never knew Tanner. Weren’t we lucky to have had Tanner with us for 20 months. Just think, there are lots of people who were never lucky enough to know him at all. We are really lucky people.”

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Reprinted by permission of Health Communications, Inc. Copyright © 1996 Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen

KEEP YOUR FORK By Dr. Roger William Thomas

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The sound of Martha’s voice on the other end of the telephone always brought a smile to Brother Jim’s face. She was not only one of the oldest members of the congregation, but one of the most faithful. Aunt Martie, as all the children called her, just seemed to ooze faith, hope and love wherever she went.

This time, however, there seemed to be an unusual tone to her words.

“Preacher, could you stop by this afternoon? I need to talk with you.”

“Of course. I’ll be there around three. Is that okay?”

As they sat facing each other in the quiet of her small living room, Jim learned the reason for what he sensed in her voice. Martha told him that her doctor had just discovered a previously undetected tumor.

“He says I probably have six months to live.” Martha’s words were certainly serious, yet there was a definite calm about her.

“I’m so sorry to…” but before Jim could finish, Martha interrupted.

“Don’t be. The Lord has been good. I have lived a long life. I’m ready to go. You know that.”

“I know,” Jim whispered with a reassuring nod.

“But I do want to talk with you about my funeral. I have been thinking about it, and there are things that I want.”

The two talked quietly for a long time. They talked about Martha’s favorite hymns, the passages of Scripture that had meant so much to her through the years, and the many memories they shared from the five years Jim had been with Central Church.

When it seemed that they had covered just about everything, Aunt Martie paused, looked up at Jim with a twinkle in her eye, and then added, “One more thing, Preacher. When they bury me, I want my old Bible in one hand and a fork in the other.”

“A fork?” Jim was sure he had heard everything, but this caught him by surprise.

“Why do you want to be buried with a fork?”

“I have been thinking about all of the church dinners and banquets that I attended through the years,” she explained. “I couldn’t begin to count them all. But one thing sticks in my mind.

“At those really nice get-togethers, when the meal was almost finished, a server or maybe the hostess would come by to collect the dirty dishes. I can hear the words now. Sometimes, at the best ones, somebody would lean over my shoulder and whisper, ‘You can keep your fork.’

“And do you know what that meant? Dessert was coming!

“It didn’t mean a cup of Jell-O or pudding or even a dish of ice cream. You don’t need a fork for that. It meant the good stuff, like chocolate cake or cherry pie! When they told me I could keep my fork, I knew the best was yet to come!

“That’s exactly what I want people to talk about at my funeral. Oh, they can talk about all the good times we had together. That would be nice.

“But when they walk by my casket and look at my pretty blue dress, I want them to turn to one another and say, ‘Why the fork?’

“That’s what I want to say. I want you to tell them that I kept my fork because the best is yet to come.”

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Reprinted by permission of Health Communications, Inc. Copyright © 1996 Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. www.hcibooks.com

WHEN YOU FEEL LONELY by Unknown Author

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When a person you love passes away
Look to the night sky on a clear day.
The star that to you, appears to be bright
Will be your loved one,
Looking upon you during the night

The lights of heaven are what shows through
As your loved one watches all that you do.
When you feel lonely for the one that you love,
Look to the Heavens in the night sky above.

Author Unknown

A LIFE WAS SAVED

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By Coral Popowitz, Executive Director of Children’s Grief Connection

At Hearts of Hope grief camp for kids we know we have a profound impact on grieving children. Our mission at the Children’s Grief Connection is to bring hope and healing to those children and that was more than evident throughout this past weekend as we gathered to greet a small but very traumatized group of children and teens who had their loved one die recently. At the Hearts of Hope camp there were several families struggling with suicide, one with a murder-suicide. There were six children grieving the loss of a brother and friend in a car accident. There were three teen boys coping with the suicide of their classmate and best friend. There were deaths from heart attacks and cancer, mothers, fathers, grandmothers – and there were grieving volunteers, adults who took their time, energy and courage to meet these children at the soft spot in our hearts that hurts most when our loved one dies, the spot where hope and healing starts.

We know it from the messages of hope and healing that were collected in our mascot Hope the Bear’s big white basket: “my hope is that nobody else dies in my family” “my hope is to have a good future” “my hope is that Thanksgiving and mom’s birthday will be wonderful” “my hope is to move on in life and stop using my mother’s death as an excuse to not try to be who I truly want to be.”

We know it from the Love and Anger wall with messages of love: “I miss your ‘magic’ kisses” and “you were the best – in the whole world” and messages of pain on the Anger Wall: “WHY? I loved you” “I hate what you did but I love you.” We know it in the candle lighting – in the darkened room, heart shaped candles ablaze – we share memories and say our goodbyes.

As the room lights up with the warm candle glow, we give permission for young and old alike to shed tears, to express pain, laughter, hope and love. Maybe it was the candlelighting, or the sharing circle just before, maybe it was in the questions the doctor and funeral director answered, or in the caring and concern her volunteer counselors provided. Whatever it was, a beautiful ten year old girl who had delighted everyone with her smile and her kindnesses shared with her counselors how much pain she was in. At her young age she had a plan to end her pain; she laid out in detail how she intended to end her young life because the emotional pain of her loss was too much for her tender heart to bear. With the help of Hearts of Hope she was able to write a letter to her mother about how she felt and what she’d planned. As frightening as this experience was for all of us involved, the hope lies in her being able to reach out and tell someone of her pain, her plan, knowing help was available to her. Because of her being at Hearts of Hope camp she and her mother will now be able to get the help they need in the days and months and years ahead; a life was saved.

At Hearts of Hope camp our anger is left behind, our love remains and our hopes are carried forward. It’s stories like hers that bring us hope…hope that our mission reaches more children and teens who hurt the way she did…

From http://childrensgriefconnection.blogspot.com. Reprinted by permission of Coral Popowitz.

INSTRUCTIONS by Rev. Arnold Crompton

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When I have moved beyond you in the adventure of life,
Gather in some pleasant place
And there remember me with spoken words, old and new.
Let a tear fall if you will, but let a smile come quickly
For I have loved the laughter of life.
Do not linger too long with your solemnities,
Go eat, and drink, and talk
And when you can — Follow a woodland trail

Climb a high mountain
Sleep beneath the stars
Swim in a cold river
Chew the thoughts of some book that challenges your soul
Use your hands some bright day to make a thing of beauty.
Or to lift someone’s heavy load.
Though you mention not my name,
Though no thought of me crosses your mind
– I shall be with you.

by

REV. ARNOLD CROMPTON

I’M OKAY, MOM AND DAD From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

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When I returned home from the funeral of a church member, my grown daughter, Jenny, asked me about the service. I had been very moved by a story the priest told about a dragonfly, so I shared it with Jen.

A group of water bugs was talking one day about how they saw other water bugs climb up a lily pad and disappear from sight. They wondered where the other bugs could have gone. They promised one another that if one of them ever went up the lily pad and disappeared, it would come back and tell the others where it had gone.

About a week later one of the water bugs climbed up the lily pad and emerged on the other side. As it sat there, it transformed into a dragonfly. Its body took on an iridescent sheen, and four beautiful wings sprouted from its back. The dragonfly flapped its wings and took off in flight, doing loops and spins through the sunlit sky. In the midst of its joyful flight, it remembered the promise it had made to return and tell the other bugs where it had gone. So the dragonfly swooped down to the surface of the water and tried to reenter the water, but try as it would, it could not return.

The dragonfly said to itself, Well, I tried to keep my promise, but even if I did return, the others wouldn’t recognize me in my new glorious body. I guess they will just have to wait until they climb the lily pad to find out where I have gone and what I have become.
When I had finished relating the short story, my daughter said, with tears running down her cheeks, “Mom, that’s really beautiful!” I agreed, and we talked for a while about it.

Two days later, early Sunday morning, July 9, 1995, Jenny came into my room, waking me to say good-bye before leaving for work at a resort on Lake Okoboji. I hugged and kissed her and told her I would see her that night when I joined her for a week’s vacation at the lake. I asked her if she had eaten breakfast and if she was wide awake, as we had been out late the night before. I knew she was tired.

“Yes, Mom, I’ll see you later!”

Several hours later, our worst nightmare began. Jenny had been involved in a head-on collision and was flown to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Thoughts crowded in on me. Why hadn’t I fixed her breakfast? Did I tell her I loved her? If I’d kept her with me a few minutes longer, would things have turned out differently? Why hadn’t I hugged her a little longer? Why hadn’t I kept her home with me that summer instead of letting her work at the lake? Why? Why? Why?

We flew to Sioux Falls and arrived at noon. Our Jenny was hurt mortally, and at ten o’clock that night, she died. If God had given me a choice, I would have traded places with her in a second. Jenny had so much to give this world. She was so bright, beautiful and loving.

On Friday of that week, my husband and I drove to the lake to see family, and we stopped to see where the accident had occurred. I don’t remember a lot, but I know I was hysterical trying to figure out what had happened and why.

Leaving the scene of the accident, I asked my husband to take me to a greenhouse, as I needed to be around beautiful flowers. I just couldn’t face anyone yet.

Walking to the back of the hothouse, I heard the fluttering of wings as if a bird or hummingbird was hitting the top of the roof. I was looking at a beautiful rose when a beautiful, large dragonfly landed within arm’s length of me. I stood there looking at this lovely creature, and I cried. My husband walked in. I looked at him and said, “Jenny is telling us that she’s okay.” We stood and looked at the lovely dragonfly for a long time, and as we walked out of the hothouse, the dragonfly remained on the rose.

A couple of weeks later, my husband came running into the house telling me to come outside quickly. When I walked out our door, I could not believe what I saw. There were hundreds of dragonflies flying in front of our house and between ours and the neighbor’s. I have never seen that many dragonflies at once in town, and the strangest thing about it was that they were only by our house.

There is no way these two experiences were just coincidences. They were more than that. They were messages from Jen.
Each time I see a dragonfly, beautiful memories of my daughter kiss my grieving heart.

Lark Whittemore Ricklefs Reprinted by permission of Health Communications, Inc. Copyright © 2003 John T. Canfield and Hansen and Hansen LLC.

SUPPORT FROM OTHERS by Unknown Author

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Don’t tell me that you understand.

Don’t tell me that you know.

Don’t tell me that I will survive,

How I will surely grow.

Don’t come at me with answers

That can only come from me.

Don’t tell me how my grief will pass,

That I will soon be free.

Accept me in my ups and downs.

I need someone to share.

Just hold my hand and let me cry

And say, “My friend, I care.”

AUTHOR UNKNOWN

ALL IS WELL by Canon Henry Scott-Holland

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Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household
word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you, for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of
parting when we meet again!
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you, for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of
parting when we meet again!

by

CANON HENRY SCOTT-HOLLAND

DAFFODIL MONTH By Jennie Ivey

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Mother opened her eyes and stared, unblinking, at the vase of daffodils on the table beside her hospital bed. “Who sent these beautiful flowers?” she asked in a barely audible voice.

“No one sent them, Mother.” I squeezed her hand. “I picked them from your yard. It’s March—Daffodil Month.”

She gave me a weak smile. “Promise me something?”

I nodded. I’d promised a lot since we’d come to accept that the cancer in Mother’s pancreas would soon take her life.

“Promise that before you sell my house, you’ll dig up my daffodil bulbs to plant in your yard.”

I tried without success to hold back my tears. “I’ll do that, Mother. I promise.” She smiled and closed her eyes, lapsing again into the twilight fog that characterized the last days of her life.

Before Daffodil Month ended, Mother was gone. And in the weeks that followed, weeks so grief-filled that my siblings and I resembled nothing so much as walking zombies, we emptied her house, painted, washed windows, cleaned carpets, and listed the home we’d grown up in with a real estate agency. We hired a neighborhood boy to take care of the yard.

And I gave the daffodils, which had long since quit blooming, not a single thought until a day in late autumn when the house was finally to be sold. My brother and sister and I were to meet the buyers to sign papers early on a morning that I knew would be filled with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it was good to be out from the burden of owning an empty house. On the other, we would soon be turning over the keys to our family home to strangers.

Strangers who, I was certain, could never love it as much as we did.

Would this new family cook Fourth-of-July hamburgers on the brick patio grill my dad had built so many summers ago? Would their children spend fall afternoons raking the leaves under the giant maple tree into a mile-high pile to jump in? Would they figure out that one corner of the family room was the perfect spot for a Christmas tree? And would they be amazed at what pushed its way out of the ground in Mother’s yard every spring?

Crocuses. Flowering onions. Hyacinths. And hundreds and hundreds of daffodils.

Daffodils! Eight months later, I suddenly remembered the promise I had made my mother as she lay dying. I tossed a shovel and a cardboard box into the trunk of my car and headed for the house and yard that would, in just a couple of hours, belong to someone not related to me.

There was no sign of daffodils anywhere, of course. They had long since been mowed down and were now covered with leaves. But I knew where they were. Ignoring the fact that I was overdressed for gardening, I plunged the shovel’s point into the dirt, lifting out a clump of bulbs, and tossed them into the box. Working my way down the fence line, I harvested dozens of daffodil bulbs.

But I left more than I took, certain that the family who’d bought my mother’s house would take delight in her lovely harbingers of spring.

As do I. It’s been more than five years now since my mother passed away. But every March, I gather armloads of the bright yellow blossoms from my own yard and put them into vases. Some I use to decorate my house. Others I take to the cancer wing at a nearby hospital.

“Who sent these beautiful flowers?” a dying patient might ask.

And I will squeeze his or her hand and look into eyes clouded by that all-too-familiar twilight fog and speak words that I believe with all my heart to be true. “My mother sent them, especially for you,” I’ll reply. “It’s Daffodil Month, you know.”

From the book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen & Amy Newmark. Copyright 2011 by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Published by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Chicken Soup for the Soul is a registered trademark of Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.