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Memorials in a pandemic world

I am just now beginning to catch up with some funerals and memorial services. When the pandemic hit, much of life came to a standstill. Death, however, was not deterred. No visits to the hospital, nursing home or hospice house. No visits with the dying. Limited contact with the bereaved. We were not open for worship. No funerals. No memorials. No committals.

As we cautiously reopened our church building for worship, cemeteries allowed a few to gather and families carefully began to travel, I made overdue plans for memorial and funeral services. But it’s different. It’s one thing to gather in the week following a death. It’s another to put it off three or more months. It’s one thing to mourn in person. It’s another to grieve online. Here are some of my experiences and observations from recent events.

Henry’s memorial was the first after we reopened out sanctuary for worship. The attenders were few as many were still cautious about being in a moderate-sized gathering. Watchers, however, were many. Our streaming capabilities were primitive but effective. We had viewers from all over the world. Family and friends from South Africa, London, Jamaica, Hawaii and New York all extended their condolences as we sang and prayed and remembered. We had over 100 comments during the service and many more who watched later. We never would have reached that many in the pre-pandemic world. What a blessing!

Don’s memorial came a whole three months after his death. His arrangements were challenging because we had to coordinate with a national cemetery sixty miles to the south. Once we set a date, some who had planned on coming changed their minds. Others who were reluctant to come decided to attend. We had to rethink some of the music at the last minute, due to illness. But by the grace of God, everything went much better than we expected.

Janey’s memorial is still on hold. We have set and cancelled dates several times. Some do not want to travel and would love a conference-call style service. Others do not want a virtual gathering, preferring to be there in person. I do not know when or how we will get this figured out.

And we have no idea about how to plan for C.’s memorial. Travel restrictions complicate that planning. it’s so hard for the family. They feel like they need to do something. But they also feel like there’s nothing they can do!

I do know that for myself, the mood of a memorial service three or four months after a death is quite different. Yes, there is sadness, tears and grief. But in some ways the memories are move vivid, the obituaries are longer and the shared stories are more detailed. The numbness of that first week of grief has passed, many emotions have been processed and the atmosphere is lighter a few months out. Rather than having to remind folks that life goes on, it’s obvious. Life has indeed gone on.

Three or four months down the road though, it’s starting to feel like old news. We may not all be at the acceptance stage of grief, but many are well on the way. And just when you’re getting close, you have to dig up memories and emotions once again for the memorial service. Some just don’t want to do that.

And of course, the whole worship experience is different. Masks are prevalent. Distancing is practiced. Hugs are few and far between. When all have left, the room is quickly disinfected. The choreography of gathering has changed, and we are all still learning the steps.

But we are gathering. And that is a tremendous blessing. The memories that make us either cry or laugh are so much better when we can share them with others. The smell of the flowers, the collage of pictures and the sound of familiar songs and readings are so much sweeter in the presence of those we love. I doubt that will ever change.

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