It is well covered in the news media that bodies are stacking up inside hospitals and nursing homes and outside in refrigerated trucks. These are scenes that most people can only imagine, and with visceral horror. Funeral directors across the country — and world — are doing our best to keep up with this previously unimagined volume of deaths caused by the coronavirus. We take bodies into our care, help families make arrangements, plan services that allow for the mourning and grieving that allow the living to move forward.
Over almost three decades in the funeral profession, I have seen death in every possible form. I have worked with parents who have buried their children, and I’ve seen families celebrate the legacy of parents and grandparents who enjoyed long lives filled with love and joy. Now, as my associates and I are arranging and directing funeral ceremonies at the staggering pace demanded by this pandemic, I believe, more deeply than ever, that there is meaning to every life. Those who are grieving, and those of us who support the bereaved, must not let these loved ones slip away without celebrating the precious moments of awe that make every life special.
In the COVID-19 world of physical distancing, church, temple, and mosque services are for the most part no longer part of our funeral planning process. Large groups can no longer congregate. What we have now are services with no more than 10 people in our funeral homes and countless others Zooming in. It might seem that these small groups of 10 are inadequate, that they cannot possibly do justice to our loved ones.
But what I have seen over the past several weeks is something miraculous. If you had to pick the 10 people who loved you most to say goodbye, imagine how much love would fill the room. The intensity of devotion, the depth of tenderness, the pain of loss in these small groups is unlike anything I have ever witnessed.
Recently, I assisted with the funeral for a beloved husband, father, and grandfather. He and his wife went to the hospital together, both COVID-19 positive. She survived, he did not. She did not see him again after they entered through the hospital doors. Yet, at his funeral, she conveyed such strength, such power to their small group of children and grandchildren. She talked about the love, the tenacity, the backbone of their family. They had lost their patriarch, but they had not lost their anchor — that was within each of them, pulling them closer and deeper together. This was not a family adrift. This was a family mourning, but secure.
At another funeral, the pastor was joined by a musician who played the organ. Among the 10 family members were two men with voices that rose in harmony of unspeakable beauty. In all of my years of directing funerals and attending church services, I can’t think of many other moments that moved me more deeply.
Death has long been part of my daily life. Like every funeral director, I have felt the physical and emotionally draining aspects of this unique profession. What I have learned is that every family is different, that you can’t always understand someone else’s grief, but you can always respect and appreciate their pain. It can frankly often feel like a lot of pressure because we so want to get it “right” for the people who ask us to usher them through this final moment of goodbye.
As more and more people succumb in this pandemic, some might wonder if funeral after funeral will harden us, that we will become inured to the shock of death. But what I have seen is quite the opposite: It turns out that 10 people coming together in love is exponentially more powerful than a virus.
Rebecca Ridley owns Davis Funeral Home in Roxbury and Mattapan. She is a past president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association.