By Todd Adkins
The coronavirus has had an unprecedented impact on how we live, work and worship. It has limited how we interact with others and our ability to travel freely.
Tragically, it’s also affecting our ability to celebrate the lives of beloved members of our church and community who have passed away as well as mourn with those who are grieving.
A traditional funeral or memorial service is not wise and is likely not even legal where you live at this current time.
Unfortunately, this affects the services of all of our loved ones who die during this pandemic, regardless of whether or not it was a result of COVID-19.
Many states have responded to the rapid spread of the coronavirus by closing all non-essential businesses and cancelling public gatherings of more than 10 people.
Social distancing guidelines encourage individuals to maintain at least six feet between themselves and others.
Many essential businesses like grocery stores now have marked off areas to ensure these six-foot guidelines are followed in public.
When it comes to funeral homes, it gets even more complicated because whether or not they are deemed essential businesses is determined on a state by state basis in the U.S.
The National Funeral Directors Association distributed guidance for funeral homes that remained open to limit memorials to immediate family.
“Normally, we go to the house to visit the immediate family of the deceased,” said Michael Catt, senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga.—one of places in the South most impacted by COVID-19 hotspots.
“Now we have to visit over the phone and get information that way or through email. And if we’re going to do a funeral the first time you’ve even seen the family is at the gravesite. That’s tough for ministers because it’s tough for those who grieve. You can’t hug them, and you haven’t cried with them yet,” he says.
“Comfort comes by engagement in relationships. And we’ve lost that ability right now.”
With all these limitations we still have options to honor the lives of those who have passed and to minister to their family and friends.
As a pastor or church leader you’ll have to navigate the responsibilities you have to honor the deceased and minister to their loved ones while maintaining a safe environment.
If the guidelines set by your state or local government permit it the family may choose to have a private viewing or service for the appropriate number of close family members and friends.
You may also want to consider offering a window of time for people to come by and pay their respects while practicing safe social distancing guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control.
This may mean helping the family invite guests to come by at specific times or instructing them to queue up outside in their vehicles and go in one at a time.
You may want to delay the funeral or celebration of life service to a later date when it is safe to hold a large gathering.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of delayed celebrations of life when this is behind us,” says Catt.
“It’s critical that loved ones have a moment of closure together, even if at the gravesite or a chapel on the church grounds as soon as people can assemble together. I would encourage people to do that. We’re celebrating the life and witness of a person.”
Livestreaming a funeral service is also an option and most churches and funeral homes are familiar with streaming options and providers. Be sure you have licensed the rights to stream whatever music has been selected if you are not working with a funeral home.
Keep in mind that your local funeral home, if open, may have their own policies and procedures at this time and are a great resource for you as well.
Follow-up with family and close friends is even more important in the wake of this pandemic regardless of whether the funeral service was private for a small group of people, a virtual service streamed online, or postponed until a later date.
Remember that the grieving process is often difficult under normal circumstances, but social distancing and forced isolation will increase the effects felt in each stage of the process.
“When people are told someone isn’t going to make it through the day, typically the family gathers, hold hands, and prays together or maybe even sings a few songs,” says Catt.
“Now people who have been engaged as family prior to the coronavirus outbreak totally have a vacuum. And we in ministry miss out on bearing the emotional weight of being with people when they die.”
Make a plan to follow up regularly and schedule it in your calendar to make sure it stays a priority as long as needed especially with anyone who is now living alone.
Whether it is FaceTime or some other service, try to use video calling whenever possible as there is a dramatic increase in the emotions and care that can be both expressed and felt by seeing someone’s face compared to a phone call.
One of the greatest moments we have to minister within our churches is when someone passes away. This pandemic doesn’t change the need; it just changes the way we care for people.
You may not be able to console a person with an appropriate hug, touch on the shoulder, or a handshake, but you can still minister to those who are grieving with intentional love and care.
For more options and ideas on how to serve grieving families in the midst of a pandemic, read “4 Steps to Navigate a Death During a Pandemic.”