Remote remembrance

Funerals Look Different during a Pandemic

Mourners and death care professionals are navigating brand new territory of virtual services and PPE.

By Sam Luikens May 11, 2020

Tim Heuer and his young family barely finished moving into their home in Renton when governor Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order went live. Like many in Seattle, Heuer found himself ill-prepared. “My work-from-home setup is this little craft table with my laptop sitting on it.”

So when his friend of over 30 years, Ron, died recently, Heuer knew that due to the limits on social gatherings and challenges surrounding travel, he’d have to take part in the funeral from his laptop at that little craft table. That’s the way many in Seattle have been forced to grieve the loss of loved ones lately.

When statewide efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus were first announced, funerals were on the list of prohibited gatherings. But following days of statewide confusion, funerals at cemetery gravesides and funeral homes were given a pass, as long as immediate family (following the six-foot rule) were the only people in attendance.

“You have this expectation of ‘Wow, this church is gonna be filled,’ like you know he has touched so many people’s lives,” Heuer said. But the church that connected him to the funeral remotely was almost empty. If it weren’t for the pandemic, Heuer says, “You could imagine it would’ve been standing room only.”

The nearly desolate sanctuary was, for Heuer, the starkest detail. Through his computer screen, he could see his friend’s casket displayed onstage near the pulpit. He could see the backs of the surviving wife and children.

The desire to hug Ron’s family and tell them how important a friend he’d been all these years was overwhelming, says Heuer, “It was hard to celebrate.”

Heuer is grateful that technology lent him the option to participate remotely in the somber celebration, but he struggled to access the depth of emotion that actually attending a close friend’s funeral elicits. “It was pretty sterile, I guess, is the way I can describe it,” he said.

Steve Barton, owner of Barton Family Funeral Services, is all too familiar with the logistical frustrations that come with planning a funeral right now. He’s spending a lot of time filing the necessary paperwork. Safety responses to the virus have shuttered many public service offices and overwhelmed some doctors, slowing the process. “Everything’s being done in piecemeal,” Barton said.

Like many industries struggling to survive the pandemic, the funeral industry is taking a financial hit. Normally, Barton would be busy with funeral arrangements and gravesides throughout the day, while evenings would be spent dressing and preparing bodies. But since funeral events have mostly been canceled or abridged, the work has dried up. “There’s a misconception that because there’s a lot of deaths happening from [Covid-19], the funeral homes must be just raking it in,” Barton says, “That’s just not happening.”

Until some semblance of normalcy returns to life in Seattle, Barton says, many families may choose to embalm and store the bodies of loved ones until it’s safe to gather for a funeral. For now, Barton helps his clients make tough decisions around planning a funeral in a pandemic—and isn’t easy for either party. “Emotionally, I think, it’s just really unfortunate for a lot of these families,” he says. And like Heuer, many might have to hunker down at a computer to say goodbye, at least for a little while longer.

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