Permanent Deacon Mauricio Castiblanco prays by a hearse carrying the body of Vicente Fajardo in Bogota, Colombia, Aug. 22. The deceased was a suspected COVID-19 victim, and his family was not allowed to go into the cemetery. (Manuel Rueda/CNS)
Permanent Deacon Mauricio Castiblanco prays by a hearse carrying the body of Vicente Fajardo in Bogota, Colombia, Aug. 22. The deceased was a suspected COVID-19 victim, and his family was not allowed to go into the cemetery. (Manuel Rueda/CNS)
Even as COVID-19 increases death, it cruelly impedes human traditions of mourning. Daniel Serres, manager of Gethsemani Funeral Home in Happy Valley, worries about the collective toll on the human spirit.

“I really believe there will be social effects because people are not able to grieve the way they want to,” Serres said. “After things open up, people will need to catch up.”

Many families have chosen to have a cremation but will wait until the pandemic clears to have a gathering and burial. It’s painful to go without closure, said Serres, who offers an example from his own family. His mother-in-law died in May in Minnesota. There has as yet been no gathering, but Serres and his wife have had Masses said in Portland for the woman’s soul.

Serres worries that funerals may never be the same. Now that families know they can delay, that might become the norm, especially in the nonconformist Pacific Northwest. “The longer people wait, the more the value of the funeral rites is diminished,” he said.

When the pandemic started, several funerals in Georgia became superspreading events. At one, an asymptomatic guest infected 14 family members, and nine died.

The worst struggle Serres has had in 38 years as a funeral director is watching families decide who can attend the rites, given pandemic limits on gatherings. “You know how important that support is and how much comfort that will give a grieving family,” he said.

It was something of a relief when state law allowed gatherings of 50 people, but a fall surge might mean the numbers will go down again.

Even beyond limited numbers, funerals look different. To align with social distancing, gone are the lineups of family members who greet guests and process in with the body. The casket now is put in front of the altar at the start. There are rarely altar servers or choirs. No one hugs or shakes hands.

Some families have gotten creative, providing matching masks for all in attendance.

There are other new things to think about at funerals — like making sure guests have sanitized pens to sign guest books. It is vital to take care since grieving people have weakened immune systems, Serres said.

When the pandemic started and only 10 people could attend a service, Serres and other Gethsemani staff waited outside, viewing the funerals on their phones so they’d know when to return to move the body.

Technology has helped salvage funerals. There, Catholic parishes provide a lot of help. They tend already to have ways to livestream and make gear available for funerals. The digital broadcasting allows relatives and friends from across the world to participate, a superb development, said Serres.

Tangentially, video has helped funeral directors learn to be better. Serres said that watching recordings revealed that staff sometimes need to slow down to reflect reverence and care.

Gethsemani Funeral Home, founded to preserve and spread Catholic teaching on the rites of death, offers online meetings with family to make arrangements before a funeral. The process requires reviewing and signing many documents. A meeting that would take an hour in person can last almost three hours online. Serres practiced on Zoom with friends before having his first meeting with a family.

Cemeteries closed to visitors at the start of the pandemic. That meant no graveside services, a real loss for families, Serres said. Gethsemani Cemetery quickly began providing photos and videos of burials so loved ones could have important closure. Later, families could come but had to stay in cars.

“It was so hard for them,” Serres said.

Now, cemeteries can welcome groups of 25. Like parishes, staff must create a contact list and allow in only those who have signed up ahead. They also must monitor guests for symptoms. Though necessary, it’s tough duty and it can irritate the grieving family.

Aaron Duyck of Duyck & VanDeHey Funeral Homes in Washington County said the increase to 50 mourners allowed was a big relief to families. He witnessed people agonize over whom to invite, the last thing they need when grieving.

“They had a lot of anxiety about that,” said Duyck, a member of Visitation Parish in Verboort. “But it’s still hard to pick that 50.”

Duyck opened a Zoom account and purchased equipment so he could livestream viewings and rosaries. He predicts the pandemic limitations will be in place for about another year.

One household recently decided to allow just immediate family to attend the funeral but sent the Zoom link to many relatives and friends. Another decided to have the wake at home, so Duyck brought the body and casket to the house and the priest conducted rites over Zoom.

Duyck likes the innovation and the personal touch. “In these times,” he said, “we have to try to get creative.”