Social Distancing Means Mourners Find New Ways To Cope And Connect

Apr 2, 2020
Originally published on April 2, 2020 11:57 am

Over the last month, Richard Frieson has lost two sisters to COVID-19. In normal times, Frieson's large family would have gathered in Chicago, where his sisters lived, to sing, pray, hug and mourn.

But in this time of a nationwide pandemic, the Friesons had to make do with a very different gathering.

"Today we are doing a big Zoom call," he said Sunday, referring to the video conferencing application that has become so popular recently. "It's just nice to see them, and I'm glad we have this technology where we can actually look at each other."

Online video conferencing is just one way mourning families are learning to cope and connect at a time when large funeral gatherings are strongly discouraged because of social distancing guidelines.

But even those who do try to hold traditional funerals are finding a changed landscape.

"Some cemeteries are trying to limit the number of people who can attend a graveside service and keep those numbers small," says Bob Achermann, who heads the California Funeral Directors Association. "This is to protect the family and the funeral staff, who are obviously exposed as well.

But even working with these smaller groups of mourners, Achermann says, his staff has to remind them to avoid doing things like hugging — at a funeral.

"It's a real challenge," he says. "It's a time when people want to show that affection and emotion with their family members and [refraining from hugs] is not something you intuitively think about."

On top of that, he says, there are new guidelines around touching the casket and the deceased.

"The CDC has advised that there is not a chance of transmission of COVID from the deceased, but our members are encouraging people to keep social distancing with the remains and the casket as well," he says. "In normal times it is not unusual for people to want to touch the deceased one last time, but those kinds of things are discouraged and people are being advised to keep their distance."

Still, in the past few weeks, these more traditional services have given way to delayed memorials or livestreamed funerals. The technology for livestreamed services has been around for a while, but demand in the past few weeks has surged, according to James Montgomery of the popular service One Room Streaming.

His company has seen a jump in the number of funeral homes using and requesting the service, Montgomery says, "but also the amount of people watching those livestreams, I would say, has easily doubled if not tripled."

As One Room staffers have monitored recent livestream feeds, they've noticed sparse in-person attendance at the services.

"We've seen services where you have the spouse of the decedent and maybe a close friend or two or three in this large chapel," Montgomery says. "But then there are 80 people watching online. So they're there, they're just not there physically."

Minister Eileen Wiviott of the Unitarian Church of Evanston outside Chicago recently lost John LaPlante, a member of her church, to COVID-19. She dedicated that week's online church service to him but then had an afternoon Zoom meeting with anyone who wanted to participate.

"And 90 people showed up," she says, noting that it turned into an unplanned memorial. "And that included people from his work life who talked about their memories of him and how he had been a mentor to them."

Just as Wiviott has seen in live memorial services, there were some participants online who didn't feel comfortable talking in front of the group. But here they had another option.

"People were able to type into the chat some of their thoughts and comments," she says. "And that was meaningful as well for them to be able to share their memories and experiences with John."

Like many families, the Friesons are delaying their memorials for their sisters, but Richard Frieson says they fully expect to be able to hug and sing together again.

"Oh yes, we will definitely sing again," he says. But until then, "We'll just do the best we can."

Copyright 2020 WBEZ Chicago. To see more, visit WBEZ Chicago.


Rituals affected by the pandemic include funerals. Just yesterday, we heard a warning of the danger. The head of an overwhelmed hospital in Albany, Ga., told us funerals are an opportunity for a virus with all the crying and wiping of noses, shaking of hands, hugging. How to grieve instead? Monica Eng of WBEZ tells us what some people are trying.

MONICA ENG, BYLINE: In just the last month, Richard Frieson has lost two sisters to COVID-19. He lives in Minneapolis, but his sisters Patricia and Wanda lived around Chicago. And when his big family got together in the past, there was always singing.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Precious Lord, take my hand.

RICHARD FRIESON: Singing was our big thing, and Patricia was one of our best singers in the family.

ENG: He said they'd get together and sing songs like "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" and at funerals, "Precious Lord," as sung here by Aretha Franklin.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) I am tired - tired. I am weak. I am weak. I am worn.

ENG: But with the current pandemic, the Frieson family won't be getting together to grieve and hug and sing. Instead, they're doing this.

FRIESON: Today we're doing a big family Zoom call. It's just nice that we have this technology where we can actually look at each other.

ENG: This is just one of the ways families are learning to cope at a time when large funeral gatherings are strongly discouraged - even outdoors.

BOB ACHERMANN: I know some cemeteries are limiting the number of people who can attend the graveside service, trying to keep those numbers small.

ENG: Bob Achermann heads the California Funeral Directors Association. He says, these days, his staff has to remind mourners to do things like stop hugging - yeah, stop hugging at a funeral. They also have to tell people to keep their hands off the casket and the deceased.

ACHERMANN: In the normal time traditional service, I mean, it's not unusual people want to touch the deceased, you know, one last time. And so those kinds of things are discouraged, and people are advised to keep their distance.

ENG: But that's for families who still have traditional funerals, and Achermann says those are fading as families delay services or go with something like a virtual funeral that they livestream on the Internet. This has actually been an option for years, but recent demand for livestreamed funerals has surged.

JAMES MONTGOMERY: And not only that, but the amount of people watching those live streams, I would say, easily doubled if not tripled.

ENG: That's James Montgomery with the online funeral service called OneRoom Streaming. He said that most streamed funerals require a password. But others are public, like this one last week in Mississippi.




ENG: You can hear a sad country song and a baby babbling, but you don't see many people in the actual chapel. Montgomery says that's becoming the new norm.

MONTGOMERY: But then when you look, there's 80 people watching online. So they're there; they're just not there physically.

ENG: Eileen Wiviott is a Unitarian minister in Evanston, just outside Chicago. She recently lost a member of her church and dedicated an online sermon to him. But then there was more.

EILEEN WIVIOTT: We also had a 3 o'clock Zoom meeting, and 90 people showed up.

ENG: These are all stopgap measures, of course, until the crisis is over and families, like Richard Frieson's, can have those long delayed memorials with real-life hugs and, yes, singing again.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) Precious Lord...

FRIESON: Oh, definitely, yes. Yeah, we'll definitely sing again.

ENG: For NPR News in Chicago, I'm Monica Eng. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.