Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
On a gray morning in May, Michelle Acciavatti, a 37-year-old funeral director in Montpelier, got a call from her boss: A resident had been found dead in a motel room the state of Vermont had provided them to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. When she went to the motel, it was the second time that day Acciavatti tended to someone who passed away without others to care for them: Just a few hours earlier, she had picked up another person who had been dead inside their apartment for well over a week before somebody called the police.
Thousands of others have died alone since the pandemic started. Mourners, too, have had to process grief on their own. Hospitals and nursing homes forbade access to family members of dying COVID-19 patients. Shelter-in-place orders kept people home, while the CDC recommended funerals be limited to no more than 10 people. Even as states are opening up and loosening some restrictions, funeral homes are limiting services to 25 percent of their normal capacity. And the volume of bodies has made it difficult for families to access their loved ones’ remains.Their bodies awaited funerals in city morgues, ice trucks, and mass graves like Hart Island, where contractors have been burying about two dozen bodies of COVID-19 per day. Because touch was forbidden due to the risk of infection, the deceased were deprived of the usual framework of love and care that surrounds death. Funeral directors like Acciavatti are thinking of new ways to grieve and memorialize the dead—perhaps changing the way the industry handles bodies and services in the years to come.When the pandemic started in the U.S., the funeral industry braced for “a complete paradigm shift,” according to operating guidelines from the Cremation Association of North America, a large professional trade organization. Bodies of COVID-19 victims contain hazardous droplets that could infect mortuary workers, the CDC says.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy has strongly discouraged embalming—which requires infusing the body with chemicals to preserve it—due to a lack of time to complete the procedure, as well as protective equipment such as masks to safely perform one. (The state of Nevada initially stated that people who died of COVID-19 could only be cremated, but eventually reversed that order, according to the NFDA.)Crematoriums in New York and New Jersey have been operating 24/7 to accommodate the increase in volume, and, elsewhere, cremation rates have increased by 10 to 20 percent, said Barbara Kemmis, CANA’s executive director.“Some families are choosing cremation rather than burial [of a body], because then they can have their cremated remains,” Kemmis said—something to hold close. “And do the memorialization later.”In cases when services are planned, whether or not a body is cremated, rituals are changing. “There's always been a kind of a joke within the funeral industry where we say, ‘Wedding planners get six months to plan a life-changing ceremony, and we get three days to do it,’” said Dutch Nie, a spokesman for the NFDA and a funeral director in Ann Arbor, Michigan.“There's been a lot of thinking outside the box—things that we might not be able to accomplish in three days, [but] in three or four months, we could really make it special.” Nie is working with families on services in “non-typical spaces,” he said, like events in parks with catering, string ensembles, and balloon releases over the summer months.
Hari P. Close, II, national president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, Inc., a Black funeral service association, also predicted more "creativity." But, as the virus is peaking in different parts of the country and disproportionately affecting people of color, Close, a funeral director in Baltimore, cautioned against lifting all of the restrictions and disinfection protocols too soon—both as they relate to life in general, and, specifically, to death. "Even when we have states and cities opening up, people have to be conscious that this thing is still present," Close said.At in-person services of all kinds, enforcing the CDC’s social distancing recommendations specific to funerals has been draining for mourners and funeral directors alike—sometimes, the latter are even being forced to act as “bouncers” or “referees,” said multiple funeral directors who spoke to VICE. At a recent funeral, “Sixteen to seventeen people showed up,” Acciavatti said, even though the family was informed ahead of time about the state’s 10-person gathering limit. “We were very clear with them on that,” she said. “We worked so hard to cultivate these really special relationships. So is it then our responsibility to turn around and say, ‘Hey, here's 10 of you—the rest of you have to go back to your cars?'”
Acciavatti has argued more than once with clients who refused to obey the rules. In March, at a beloved family matriarch’s casket viewing, 12 people showed up. She stood at the door, letting them through in groups of two. “It’s frustrating—that family has the right to feel their mother is the most important woman who ever lived and died in Vermont,” Acciavatti said. “They want to be the exception, but they can’t be.”Given the logistical and emotional tangles presented by trying to adapt traditional memorial services, DIY funeral rituals are on the rise. "Bodiless memorials" present fewer problems, since they take place from a distance, via livestreams, or video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Acciavatti told VICE. These have included people wearing the same color on a set day to remember a loved one, using that color to decorate a space indoors or out, planting trees, preparing a favorite meal, organizing drive-bys where people can meet in their cars at a designated spot and/or drive past a home, carrying signs or electric candles, making music, and reciting obituaries.In all but nine states, people aren’t obligated to hire a funeral director to organize a funeral. A growing group of home funeral guides are teaching people how to do their work themselves. In March, Amy Cunningham, a funeral director in New York City, along with Lee Webster, the former president of the National Home Funeral Alliance, a nonprofit with more than 2,600 members, published a video to help people navigate the fears of taking care of a body at home during the pandemic.
Webster said not being able to follow the norm can feel like an obstacle to people. “You're used to having somebody die, picking up the phone, having the body removed. And then you go on with all these socially acceptable, ceremonial aspects. Well, you can't do all those things,” she said. “So what are you going to do instead to capture that moment?“People are starting to recognize that they're in charge of their own feelings,” she added. “They're in charge of their own grief process.”As states are starting to open up and resume some funeral services, Nie has seen a greater appreciation for the value of community during a time of loss—“things that might have been taken for granted in the past.”Kemmis said communitywide memorial services, “much like we saw after 9/11,” would likely continue for the foreseeable future—and that there might be a specific sense of healing offered there: “Sometimes, the complications related to delayed grief can be offset by realizing that you’re not alone,” she said.Follow Lisa De Bode on Twitter.