As the coronavirus pandemic limits people's ability to mourn, they are finding new ways to say goodbye.
My father died of the coronavirus last week, and I'm not sure how to mourn. No visitors were allowed in the hospital, and my family did not get final goodbyes and I-love-yous, even over the phone. We think he died alone.
My sister planned a service, but only a few people were there, and everyone had to remain 6 feet apart. I took the bus home, skipping the burial because I have no car and didn't want to violate the 6-feet rule. Afterward, we could not grieve together as a family or share a meal, stories, laughter and tears.
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In ordinary circumstances, I would have my retail job to go back to, which would help me regain a sense of normalcy. That option doesn't exist now. How do I find closure? Maybe I can do a video conference, but it seems so impersonal and incomplete.
— Theresa Schilizzi, Brooklyn, New York
I couldn't be sorrier about the loss of your father, or your quandary, which looms over us all. We may be about to confront death on a scale few of us have ever known while being stripped of time-honoured consolations: wakes, funerals, shivas. When the hour calls for togetherness, we will be apart.
When I called you to learn more, you told me that two years ago, you took a course called "The Art of Dying," about finding new ways to bring honour to the end of life. "It changed me, to view death in a sacred way," you said. Instead, your father got an ending that defied everything you had learned about saying goodbye.
To find answers, I turned to therapists and members of the clergy. Most of their advice was compassionate but resigned: Stay safe. Call friends. Even if a more extensive memorial is planned for later, don't forgo the opportunity to mourn now. Give Zoom and Google Hangouts a try.
"It's the best that we can do under these circumstances," said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, who has been leading funerals and shivas over Zoom.
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That did not seem like enough. Grasping for more, I contacted historians of death, seeking clues about how previous generations mourned amid pandemics. They offered some of the more hopeful answers, and a prediction: This crisis would transform the way we grieve. These kinds of catastrophes are what push us forward in our mourning rituals, and now we are poised to make another leap.
"As gut-wrenching as these stories are going to be, we are going to find ways to innovate and adapt, to make meaning out of these separations," said Gary Laderman, a professor of US religious history at Emory University.
When disasters limit mourning, people invent new ways to say goodbye, Laderman and his peers said. It had happened many times before. The Black Death in Europe caused a high mortality rate among priests, so everyday people stepped in. During the Civil War, American families turned to embalming to preserve the dead over time and distance so they could be returned for burial at home. Those efforts helped give rise to the modern funeral industry. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia left many of their victims in mass graves. So the bereaved switched to chanting over the possessions of the departed.
Those shifts were poised to happen before the tragedies hit, the historians said. But the crises accelerated the changes, and they lasted because they filled some shared need. Based on what the historians said, Theresa, your "Art of Dying" class may be more relevant than ever.
"In coming months, we're going to see what else the word 'funeral' can mean," said Amy Cunningham, a funeral director in Brooklyn, New York, and a teacher of that course.
Authority figures like funeral directors and clergy members may become less central to the grieving process. "I think we'll see a radical shift in the democratisation of authority — who has the right to officiate a funeral," said Priya Parker, the host of a new podcast, called Together Apart, on how people can still connect during this crisis.
Online funerals may dissolve the constraints of the form: size, location, cost. Eulogies could take on new shape. "We might imagine recorded remarks from loved ones, keeping their social distancing practices, filming words of remembrance at varied sites of significance to the deceased: a back porch rocking chair, a local fishing pond, a beloved hiking trail, the site of a first date," wrote the Rev. Cody J. Sanders, an American Baptist chaplain at Harvard University.
Mourners are likely to place less emphasis on the body of the deceased. "I fear that, in some instances, the only moment that the family will meet the body again is when those cremated remains arrive in the mail," Cunningham said.
Instead, the focus may be on memorialising that person's life and finding new ways to signal sorrow. In the 19th century, families had elaborate ways of telling the world they had lost a loved one, down to the texture of black fabric they wore, said Brandy Schillace, a medical historian. Windows were draped in black to mark a death in the home. "You could drive by a house, realize they were in grief and have solidarity with them," she said.
Many of those rituals were abandoned when medicine improved and fewer lives were lost, Schillace said.
Now, as losses are beginning to mount, so is determination to forge new ways to comfort the bereaved. Volunteers are organising donations of tablet computers to hospitals so that families in straits like yours will find it easier to share final moments. New grief groups are forming online. Prepare for more transformation in coming weeks, the historians predicted. Social media can turn a new practice into a tradition in 24 hours. Because no one is safe from the coronavirus, mortality is front and center for everyone.
When this crisis is over, some of these changes are likely to endure. Even when it's safe to travel again, many in-person funerals will start to include video conference options for those who are far away, Cunningham said.
"I don't know that the funeral will ever be the same," she said.
Theresa, you are in the vanguard, even if you never wanted to be. Because of the time you invested in your "Art of Dying" class, you may be better equipped than some. Is it any consolation to think of yourself as part of a historic shift, in a position to find your own solutions and then help others by sharing them? I hope so.
Written by: Jodi Kantor
Photographs by: Ryan Christopher Jones
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES