May 27, 2020
Today I officiated my first ‘masked’ funeral and graveside service. I knew in this time of COVID-19, it would be different. I have many mixed emotions this night.
I arrived early; as I do… to meet the funeral home staff and get acclimated and settled; so I may provide that non-anxious presence for the loved one that will be attending the service.
Funeral staff were at the front doors and stated no one is allowed in. I was directed to the Chapel side door where a funeral staff member would let me know. Once in the Chapel I had time alone with the body of the deceased. There was a red velvet rope surrounding her casket; to keep all social distanced from her.
Only 10 of her family members were allowed at the service and they were to be directed to the Chapel side door, and let in at exactly 12:30 p.m. The list was at the door of those names that were allowed in to the service and access to drive into the cemetery for the following graveside service.
When I spoke with the funeral director earlier in the week, I was told they hold just two services a day and ours would be the second one. That is to allow time to thoroughly clean and sanitize the Chapel. All attendees are required to wear masks. The pews in the Chapel have every other one roped off to prevent sitting too close to one another.
When the loved ones arrived, my discomfort grew. I met the granddaughter who expressed discomfort with an open casket service and chose to sit in the back pew to be as far away as possible. As I listened, I felt a barrier with my mask on and hoped she could see the empathy in my eyes as she shared her concerns and grief… and as I listened.
The youngest son arrived and as I greeted him, he wanted to shake my hand. Me… the eternal hugger… who during my Chaplain residency had one unit where I was not allowed to hug anyone… to practice that distance. I have learned to not assume contact with others; and how to have boundaries and check in before contact. This was a handshake.. something that in pre-COVID times was acceptable. It was excruciatingly painful for me not be be able to accept that hand shake.
One of the last to arrive was the elderly brother… the last of five siblings alive. He approached the casket to view his sister; since a formal viewing prior to the service was not allowed. I watched his tears fall to his mask as he was held back from approaching the casket by the red velvet rope maintaining the 6 feet of distance with the deceased. Understanding a bit of the culture of this family, I assume pre-COVID, this brother would have approached his sister’s body to give one last kiss upon her forehead.
Once it was time to begin, I walked to the front of the Chapel and began the service. I looked out a the 10 masked loved ones, and invited them to take a breath and think of all that would like to be present with us for this service, and to bring them into the room and into the empty spaces within each of their hearts. Realizing I was more than 10 feet at the podium to the closest person, I offered an option to those gathered. I asked if they felt comfortable and preferred, I could take my mask off so they could see me speaking. And I equally offered if any one person felt uncomfortable, I would most certainly keep the mask on. They all approved of the mask off.
Once my mask was off, the actual service felt familiar. I felt like I could express more. And I felt more at peace. Of course, the opportunity to share a life, and lift up what brought meaning to this human is always is a blessing.
At the end of the service, pre-COVID, I would have gone up to each family member personally to express condolences; and perhaps shake a hand, or touch a shoulder, or if appropriate and wanted, give a hug. That could not happen.
Also in pre-COVID times, I would have accompanied the casket as the pallbearers processed to the hearse; and then I would ride with the body to the graveside. I was required to go ahead in my car and await the arrival. Of course, as I approached the cemetery, there was a barricade and two security guards. I had to give my name and have them check that I was on the list before I was allowed to proceed. Very friendly guards; just very different.
Due to COVID, no tent canopy is set up at the gravesite. So in today’s heatwave and full sun, I walked to the graveside to await the casket with the body; and the body of loved ones. There was one sweet tree next to the burial site with a bit of shade. In the branches were two sets of wind chimes. I wondered who had left them. The cemetery staff carried the casket from the hearse to the gravesite. The family gathered. The wind chimes accompanied the final scripture readings and commendation and committal. The sun illuminated the familiar prayer and final blessing. At the conclusion of the graveside service, I was given the Crucifix from the casket to present to the family. The eldest is the daughter and also a dear friend. I did not remember COVID at all. As I handed her the Crucifix, I felt her grief and leaned in closer to hear what she had to say about how difficult this all is. Meaning her loss. I spoke the words the spirit guided me to say to her at that moment. I can always count on spirit for the essence of what is needed. And I touched her shoulder, and wanted to give the hug I knew was welcome. And I jolted back into COVID times. But I did touch her shoulder.
So as I said… many mixed feelings. I did my first ‘masked’ funeral and graveside service. There is much that is the same; and so much that is different. I will be pondering in the coming days how to navigate COVID times as a Celebrant.
My prayer this night is that I was able to accompany the family in their time of honoring their loved one today; in the ways each needed. And I leave with the final poem I offered today… for the remembrance of the quick witted, crocheting, card-playing, lipstick adorned, welcoming, ironing fanatic, Portuguese port sipping, geranium lover, gardening soul. May she rest in peace!
Final Poem - Gardener’s Blessing by Ralph Emerson Purchaser
May God grant thee
Enough sun to warm the earth,
Enough rain to make things grow,
A good strong back,
A wide brimmed hat,
And a good sharp goose-neck hoe,
Strength for a day of toil
And some quiet evening hours,
With a sip of tea
And a gentle breeze,
And may all your weeds be wildflowers.