Savor the family stories: Handling grief and funerals during a pandemic


We said goodbye to my cousin Larry this week. Covid-19 did not do him in, but it sure did a number on his funeral plans.

Those of us who knew and loved him watched the family drama unfold. I vowed to record the story for posterity, and to maybe help others who have to bury a loved one during a pandemic. After all, we have had a sea change with regard to how we are now forced to handle the business of death and dying. So many families can no longer gather at a beside to say a final good-bye. Funeral homes have been closed. Church buildings are empty. Funeral crowds are often limited to immediate families, then tagged by the media or health department reports as super-spreaders of illness.

Where do we go with our grief in these Covid days?

Initially we worried that pandemic restrictions would leave us incapable of closure through traditional grieving rituals. Those restrictions did put a few wrinkles in the funeral but we worked around and through them. We are Kansans, after all.

Granddaughter Leslie reads online condolences to her grandmother.

We watched my 95-year-old Aunt push the boundaries of Covid restrictions

Larry’s daughters gathered around his surviving mother and included her wishes in every aspect of the planning. At 95, my Aunt Gene is still a force to be reckoned with. Admittedly, burying two of her children has stripped her of some of her starch. But we watched in awe as her sharp mind maneuvered around Covid restrictions. If challenged or reminded she should not be planning that or doing this, she just smiled politely and pretended she couldn’t hear.

Aunt Gene knew she was not supposed to have people come to the house after the funeral or for any kind of meal. That didn’t keep her from inviting everyone she talked to, from cousins to the funeral directors.

She wasn’t the only one. When the hospice workers who come to the house several times a week insisted there be no visitors and absolutely no food brought in, everyone meekly acquiesced. But behind the scenes, the local church ladies put on masks and gloves and gathered in one of their homes to make bologna salad sandwiches from Aunt Gene’s own recipe. They called my husband to come and pick them up and secretly deliver them to her house, so that any “stray illegals” who popped in before or after the funeral would be fed.

My aunt has not been out of the house for nearly two years since going on hospice care. This week, her granddaughters arranged for a transport van with a lift and a wheelchair to get their grandmother to the graveside service. Then, just a few days before the service, Aunt Gene said she really wanted to see her son’s body so she could have closure. Maybe she needed to make sure he was really, really dead, as that song in the Wizard of Oz goes. But we all suspect it was more a matter of pushing through those doggone Covid parameters to exert some control over a difficult situation.

The funeral home directors quickly arranged for an 11 a.m. viewing at the mortuary, followed by the 2 p.m. graveside service. That required two separate appointments with the wheelchair transport van. It also required a virtual retinue of family members to help Grandma Gene get dressed in something more attractive than flannel pajamas, shove men’s slippers over hospital socks, over edema-swollen feet, and wheel her across temporary ramps and into the van. She got a bit annoyed when someone shoved a plastic face shield over her newly-permed hair. And she flat out refused to wear a second mask underneath the shield, saying she couldn’t breathe.

The Grandma retinue toted around a large bag full of hand sanitizer, water bottles, tissues and other necessities. But she was irritated to discover no one brought her glasses. And she was really disgusted to find that she had to wait at the funeral home until the van returned for the next appointment. To help her pass the time, we asked a staff member to print out the condolences and stories of Larry that had been submitted via the online guest registry.

Online condolences can be captured, printed and preserved

Those memories of my cousin contained veins of gold. They showed us all a side of Larry that we hadn’t previously seen. They took the place of the tradition our little rural church has of allowing everyone to tell their stories orally during a funeral service. Covid has closed the building to all gatherings. But the stories got told anyway, thankfully, and due to new online networks maintained by the funeral home.

At the graveside service, we were all warned to social distance. We wore masks. And scores of us showed up to what was advertised as a private family service. The older generation in our rural area…folks who watched Larry grow up, play high school football and join the Navy…they were at the cemetery, masked and safely distanced. Some of them could barely walk over the uneven cemetery ground. Someone came with a walker. When one of my relatives tired of standing, she sat down on the closest tombstone, checking first to see if the person buried there had been someone she knew. We seemed to be united in participating in an outdoor social event that was permissible during a pandemic. Luckily it was one of those rare, warm winter days.

We need familiar rituals…we need to hear the stories

No matter the generation, we all hungrily soaked up the pomp of the military service–from the flag draped casket, to the loud rifle reports and playing of Taps, and through the flag folding and presentation by members of the Air Guard to Aunt Gene. Our spirits gained comfort from the familiarity of the ritual. Even though we had all heard the 23rd Psalm repeated by pastors at every funeral service in memory, we needed to hear it again and be soothed. But what we all really needed to hear? Stories of Larry, as told by his tearful daughter. We laughed and cried with her to hear the memories he made for his three daughters.  She managed to capture some of his witty sayings. The most memorable: “stop acting like farts in a skillet” (settle down). My favorite was her story of gathering at Larry’s sister’s house for family dinners, crowding into the dining room like sardines in a can, then finding it impossible to leave the table except by crawling under it.

The only thing missing was a display of photos and a slideshow … and music

Our celebration of Cousin Larry’s life contained almost all of the elements of any pre-pandemic funeral. But it did lack the display of photos depicting the highlights of his life. It lacked the slideshow playing in a perpetual loop on a screen or television monitor in front of the church. It lacked music playing in the background and it lacked congregational singing of old, familiar hymns. We had to be content with a taped version of Taps and a country gospel CD player version of “I Come To The Garden Alone.” Those attempts at honoring funeral traditions were a welcome balm to most of us. But we wanted to do more. So we have.

The celebration of Larry’s life and the traditions and legacy of family continues now through a Facebook family group set up a few weeks ago when I stumbled across the rough beginnings of a family history book. My cousin Linda (Larry’s sister) started on a family history dedicated to our grandparents way back in the 1980s. It contained photos of Grandma Junia and Grandpa Noble, photos of cousins, photos of aunts and uncles and treasured recipes from each of them.

The cousins are now collaborating on the preservation of the stories. Cousin Mike posted a rare but grainy 16 mm scene of the family gathered around a dinner table, then another one of Grandma walking (most of us remember her always seated in a wheelchair), and yet another of some ICBM missiles being delivered to silos in Kansas. Through the comments and discussions prompted by those videos I learned that my Uncle Max helped excavate the missile silos in the area, running his bulldozer expertly in circles and down into the ground, until a crane was brought in to lift the dozer into the ever deepening hole and then out again when it was complete. Thanks to Cousin Kevin, one of many pilots in the family (a tradition that began with his dad), I also learned the difference between Atlas and Minuteman missiles. Who knew? Who cared, except us, now that we are older and want all the details. We want our history to be deeper than our reactions to a pandemic.

This 1950s 16 mm movie, filmed by my late Uncle Rex and shared by Cousin Mike on our new Facebook group, caused some of us to shed tears of gratitude and recollection. A slice of daily family life has been preserved.

Meanwhile, back at a somewhat ‘illegal’ funeral celebration . . .

In addition to telling family history stories in a new Facebook group, we told more tales after Larry’s funeral, while gathered “illegally” at Aunt Gene’s. We ate dishes that mysterious and unnamed hands prepared, taking off our masks just long enough to inhale the comforting flavors of cheesy potatoes, baked beans, lasagna, chocolate chip cookies, bologna salad sandwiches, and gallons of hot coffee. We excused our indulgence by labeling ourselves as immediate family. We tried to stay six feet apart, but we’ve all been around each other and in and out of the house pretty habitually for several months now. Some of us have even had Covid and stayed away for several weeks. But we always come back to the nucleus, to the traditional gathering spot and one of the only homes that now archives our memories. We always gather at Aunt Gene’s.

We told and preserved a few new stories in her house this week as we coped with loss and worked around pandemic restrictions. We became stronger, more resilient, more loving and better people, maybe even because we could not do exactly what we are used to doing in the grieving department.

Here’s the image that remains in my head and heart from this week: My aunt leans forward from her wheelchair, peers over the top of the open casket at her handsome, gone-too-soon son dressed in blue jeans and a soft flannel shirt. and says softly, “Bye, son. I’ll see you in heaven. I’ll see you soon.”

The rest of us now have the job of making sure we collect all of Grandma Gene’s stories and memories … before “soon” rolls around and catches us unprepared.