COVID-19 Burial, Cremation, and the Pandemic Funeral

7 min Article
From the COVIDPAPER.ORG, Paper Editors: Candi K. Cann, Ph.D, Michael Hebb, Megan Devine, LCPC, Alica Forneret, Allison Gilbert, Lashanna Williams, Stephanie Gailing, Silvia Perez-Protto, M.D., Rana Adwish, M.D.
COVID-19 Burial, Cremation, and the Pandemic Funeral

The suggestions gathered below may help people connect from a distance as they celebrate and mourn the lives of loved ones.

Restrictions on visitations and funerals vary and are changing rapidly, depending on state regulations. The inability to gather with loved ones can be difficult on families, as the need for touch and connection is a core part of being human. In addition, many grieving families feel that they can’t give their loved one the kind of funeral or memorial they deserved. This can intensify feelings of loss.

We share both low-tech and high-tech ways to gather together and honor loved ones. As always, we encourage people to utilize the technology they are already familiar with in their everyday lives so that the stress of trying to adapt or learn new technologies is not an added burden.

o Remind families that there is no single correct way to memorialize a life. It’s okay to be creative: talking about ways to note their loved one’s passage can be a connective, healing experience.

o Just because a traditional funeral, wake, shiva, or memorial might not be an option right away, doesn’t mean they can’t gather at a later date to “do it right.” If their families are stressed about not giving their loved one the send-off they deserved or requested, they can plan a do-over.

o Depending on available resources, funerals and direct burials can be livestreamed, using tools such as Facebook Live or Instagram Live. This allows funeral directors to livestream the funeral or interment while interacting with viewers in real time. These platforms also allow for the video to be recorded for later viewing. Note that Facebook is a familiar platform for many people, especially in older age ranges—this is helpful when planning services for those whose social circles include older demographics.

o In some cases, friends and family may be able to witness the interment or burial from the safety of their own vehicles. Check with both state regulations and your funeral service professionals.

o Some people might consider asking funeral directors for a handprint of or lock of hair from their loved one as a way to remember the deceased. In this way, they could “touch” the handprint in the absence of a physical touch. A lock of hair can be stored in a keepsake locket, or made into wearable art.

o Encourage families and friends to write notes, send photos or create art, which can be handwritten or sent via email to the funeral home or cremation provider, to be tucked in with the body for burial, or kept with the body during the cremation process. They might also send a special shroud to be included in burial or cremation. This is a way for family and friends to be with their loved one even from a distance.

o Include the children! Children understand more than we think. Have them encourage the children to ask questions and come up with their own creative ideas to bring the family together. Help them to discover familiar tools that can mark the loss in their own ways. For example, popular video games like Minecraft allow users to build virtual spaces which could stand as virtual memorials for the dead.

Share with the families that they can find their own unique ways to acknowledge the loss. 

These could include such ideas as:

o Setting up an altar. Have them place a picture of the deceased in a part of their home, and adorn it with candles, flowers, and favorite objects of the deceased. Even if they are non-religious, honoring the dead in this way in their home helps them to remember their loved ones in a way that their death is a tangible part of their life.

o If under lockdown, hold a candlelight vigil, and invite individuals to drive by, flash their lights and/or leave or light a candle or flowers on the steps of the home of the deceased. This is a beautiful way to honor the deceased loved one while supporting their family.

o Encourage them to write a letter to their deceased loved one as a way to heal and process grief. You can find one process to doing so here.

o Have them cook food that reminds them of their person. Suggest the idea of organizing a memorial virtual brunch in which other members of their family cook their favorite recipes. Gathering with food is such an important part of memorializing people we love. Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook Live, and Google Hangouts are all good options for virtual community meals.

o Share the idea of their creating a rolling funeral in which they schedule a series of dates with friends and family to remember together. They don’t always have to talk about grief and death (although they can if they want). Connect by phone, video calls, or multiuser platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts.

o Other virtual memorial activities could include sharing songs that remind them of the person they’ve lost (e.g., creating a shared playlist) or creating a collective photo album to which everyone contributes their favorite photos.

o Another idea is for them to create a shared calendar (via WhatsApp, Google, or email) that outlines a series of “suggested” memorialization activities everyone can do together. For example, Day 1 could feature using grandma’s recipe for cookies and gathering together to eat cookies and chat. Day 2 could feature virtually visiting special places on Google Street view and talking about the memories they made there. While Day 3 could have them watching their favorite film and keeping a running text thread with movie commentary.

o Suggest that they order takeout, meal delivery, or buy gift cards for grieving family and friends so they don’t have to worry about food shopping or preparing during a time of grief. Meal Train and Lotsa Helping Hands are great websites to help people plan “casserole brigades” and coordinate delivery of meals.

o Encourage story sharing. Have them create a Google document or other page and invite friends and family to share their favorite memories and stories. To help people get started, they can share a simple prompt or question such as, “Tell us about the most embarrassing moment you had with (person’s name)?” or “We don’t often realize the impact we have on each other. What’s one thing you remember about (person’s name) that they thought was no big deal?” For more structured story ideas, see the list of resources in Chapter X.

o LifeWeb 360 and New Narrative Memorials have published two valuable free resources for planning funerals—one for families and another for funeral directors. The one for families has all sorts of ideas for families wanting to be involved in planning the service for their loved ones and can be found here: Planning A Virtual Memorial Event A Free Step-by-Step Guide For Families To Create an Online Ceremony

Additional resources we recommend include:

o What's Your Grief maintains a list of ways to honor and remember those who are sick or have died. Among their suggestions are to make and share a playlist that reminds friends and families of their person, or co-creating a list of things that the dying or deceased person has taught them. For more great ideas visit their website.

o Nurture.Co offers a wonderful list of Things to Say and Not Say to those who are grieving here. Among their suggestions are to avoid judging, offering solutions, and making assumptions, and to respect the grievers’ perspectives, be curious, and to let experts weigh in.

o Sarah Chavez, the director of The Order of the Good Death, has created a guide to end of life and funeral planning in the age of COVID-19. Find the toolkit here.  

Oregon Funeral Resources & Education, a non-commercial website dedicated to making home funeral information easy to find, has created a frequently updated online Pandemic Care Guide. The Pandemic Care Guide assembles articles on death in the time of pandemics and ideas on what to do when a funeral isn't possible, with resources on how to care for the dying, the deceased, and the bereaved in this time; emotional support for grief and trauma; advance directives completion; and FAQs about care for the dead at home and COVID-19. Find it here.

A Special Note

We expect to see a lot of survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of COVID-19 deaths. As the virus is spread through close contact, surviving family members may feel responsible for spreading the virus to their loved one, resulting in their death. This is a normal response to a complex situation. Normalize, support, and validate each person’s experience.

About the Teachers

Michael Hebb

Michael Hebb

Founder of Death Over Dinner and EOL
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Candi K. Cann

Candi K. Cann
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