Funerals during COVID-19: mourning and saying goodbye from six feet apart

Our normal rituals and healing processes have been disrupted

Today's expression: All walks of life
Explore more: Lesson #265
June 4, 2020:

The United States has just passed a grim milestone: 100,000 deaths officially attributed to COVID-19. The death care industry is completely overwhelmed, and mourning family and friends have few options to grieve and heal together within the parameters of social distancing. Plus, learn the English expression “all walks of life.”

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In times of COVID, it’s so much harder to grieve the loss of a loved one

Lesson summary

Hi there, it’s Jeff; JR is the producer; and this is Plain English lesson 265. The full lesson, including the transcript, translations, video, exercises, and more, is available at PlainEnglish.com/265. The new web site looks great; I can hardly believe it’s done. Well, probably because it’s not done—at least not when I’m recording this. But it will be done when you hear it! You can get all the great lesson resources at PlainEnglish.com/265 and then explore the rest of the web site when you are done.

Coming up today: The COVID crisis is upending our rituals for grieving when a person has died. We’ll talk about the difficulty of holding a funeral and saying goodbye in these days of social distancing. The expression is “all walks of life.” It’s not an expression you’ll use every day, but it’s a good one to know.

Funerals in the age of COVID-19

As I’m recording this lesson, the United States is about to pass a grim milestone: one hundred thousand deaths officially attributed to COVID-19. The worldwide total is about three hundred fifty thousand.

Most of the media attention is focused on the disease, the hospitals, the doctors and nurses, ventilators, masks, the race for a vaccine, social distancing, government leaders, saving lives, the economic cost of the pandemic. Today, I’d like to talk about what comes after all that: the new difficulty of grieving and mourning the loss of someone who has died, whether from COVID-19 or from other causes.

Mourning the loss of someone who has died is difficult in the best of times; it much more so now. The rituals we observe in the wake of a death are designed to fill the emptiness that the deceased’s closest friends and family members feel. By their nature, these rituals involve being together and they often involve physical touch. There is a reason for that: these things make us feel better when we are hurting.

Many of these rituals are now impossible. A funeral service, if it is even allowed to occur, is for the very closest family members only. Even then, blood relatives must stand six feet apart while at a parent’s or grandparent’s funeral. There is a grim joke that says extended families and groups of friends only come together for weddings and funerals. As sad as a funeral is, it is often a chance for those who are living to re-connect and re-affirm their friendships or family ties. Mourners are being robbed of that opportunity.

There are also touching moments that can only happen at a funeral. A funeral is sometimes the only opportunity for the many people in a person’s life to meet each other. I’ll give you an example. The last funeral I went to was for a person I was very close to as a kid. A number of us were there, my friends; but we also saw his colleagues from work (even though he had retired years ago); his brother, whom he rarely saw; his grandkids; and new friends he had developed recently through geocaching, an outdoor activity. It was nice for me, but must have given great comfort to his widow, who saw how many people, from all walks of life, came to celebrate her husband’s life. Today’s widows won’t have that comfort.

A burial, too, is an important ritual in many cultures. It is a ceremony led by a minister, priest, rabbi or other official who administers a final blessing. In the hardest-hit areas, what should be a somber and reflective occasion is often rushed: religious officials are over-booked and must hurry from one service to the next. Often, the only people at a gravesite are the funeral staff and one or two close family members. It is a Jewish tradition for the mourners at the gravesite to toss fresh dirt into the grave until the casket is covered. It is a moving and meaningful tradition with dozens of people all tossing in a few handfuls; it is laborious when it’s just a few people.

We often don’t think about the logistics of a funeral: how a body goes from a hospital or a home to a casket or, well, an urn. But those logistics are being strained. In the hardest-hit areas, funeral homes are overwhelmed and don’t have the capacity to take new clients. The same is true for morgues. In New York, bodies are being stored in refrigerated trailers because there simply is no capacity in the morgues or the funeral homes.

There are other indignities. Families that opt for cremation often have to pick up the ashes of their loved one in the parking lot of a funeral home, rather than inside. Some funeral homes are allowing extended family members to say one last goodbye—but only if they drive by the casket and stay in their cars.

Try our free coronavirus writing challenge

The funeral business is a strange business. About ten years ago, I had the opportunity to meet and interview about a dozen funeral home directors in the small towns in the region where I live. It was an interesting project.

We don’t think about the funeral business very much, but they the definition of an essential function. They are often fixtures in their small towns, in their communities, and you can tell from the interviews they give that they’re trying their best under very difficult circumstances.

On to cheerier subjects. We have a brand-new web site. Maybe you’ve seen it? One of the ways we’re celebrating the new web site is with a free five-day writing challenge. That is included in the new free membership. As soon as you sign up for the free membership, you’ll see a link to start the writing challenge. It’s five days of video lessons and writing activities. And at the end of the challenge, you will have written about your entire experience with the coronavirus quarantine.

That’s not all. I will read all your final products. Whatever you come up with at the end, I will read it. And JR and I will choose three winners from the coronavirus writing challenge, with three prizes, including the chance for your story to be featured on the Plain English web site. It’s not required. But it is a nice little incentive for you to complete the full challenge.

So here’s what you do. Go to PlainEnglish.com/join and sign up for a free membership. Well, you can sign up for a Plus+ membership, too: nothing would make me happier. But you don’t have to. You can sign up for a free membership, and immediately after signing up, you’ll see a link to start the writing challenge. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s all free, so head over to PlainEnglish.com/join and get started on that today.

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Expression: All walks of life