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Grief amid the pandemic: Live-streamed funerals, canceled services and mourning left ‘unfinished’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/23/2020 Arelis Hernández, Mark Berman

a group of people posing for a photo: Bruce Mewborne Jr., front left, with his wife, Ann, and their four sons. A longtime pediatric physician, he died earlier this month of complications from memory loss. © Michael Mewborne Bruce Mewborne Jr., front left, with his wife, Ann, and their four sons. A longtime pediatric physician, he died earlier this month of complications from memory loss. SAN ANTONIO —As Bruce Mewborne Jr. lay dying last week, his family wondered: How could they honor the 83-year-old doctor, beloved by the community and survived by a wife and four sons, during a pandemic?

A funeral for Mewborne, a pediatric physician and faithful church parishioner, would draw hundreds. But authorities in Texas and across the country have banned groups from gathering because of the novel coronavirus

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The solution came from Irving Cutter, the priest who administered Mewborne’s last rites with hand sanitizer and a mask.

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They could not gather for a service. But they could stream one on Facebook.

Days later, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church broadcast from inside their chapel for the first time, positioning an iPhone on a tripod and streaming Mewborne’s funeral to more than 400 people.

“It’s really sad that my mom could not have the funeral for her husband that he deserves,” Michael Mewborne said. “It’s been some help to know how many people appreciated him without being able to see him.”

Grieving families across the country have confronted similar obstacles as the spread of the coronavirus reshapes and shutters significant parts of everyday life. The highly contagious virus has made many common mourning rituals dangerous. “It’s like the perfect storm,” said Char Barrett, owner of A Sacred Moment Funeral Services in Washington state. “You have people who want to be close, people who are crying, people kissing and hugging — it’s the worst possible situation for trying to tell people to keep their distance from each other.”

So mourners and funeral directors are making difficult decisions, weighing whether to postpone services, hold them with strictly limited access, broadcast them online or record them to replay later.

Bryant Hightower, a funeral director at Hightower Family Funeral Homes in Carrollton, Ga., is letting families record services held now, with plans to replay them in the same chapel after the crisis abates, giving friends and family a chance to gather and watch “just like it’s happening live.”

He is also offering to live-stream services, he said.

Another funeral director said she was exploring services via the videoconferencing app Zoom to let up to 100 relatives connect virtually to share their grief.

For the Mewbornes in Texas, changing plans to live-stream their father’s funeral was what he would have wanted, his family said. He was an Army medic who served in Vietnam and continued to mentor physicians in San Antonio after a career in private practice.

The only people in the chapel were Mewborne’s sons and their immediate family. One brother was assigned as the designated hugger for their mother; two others gave brief remarks and read passages from the Bible. As Jeff Mewborne stood in the chapel to mourn his father, his wife put the live stream on their living room television at home so their children could watch.

a group of people standing in front of a building: From left, Michael, Jeff, John and Bruce Mewborne III, inside an empty church in San Antonio, where they would have expected hundreds of people at their father’s funeral had it not been for the pandemic. © Michael Mewborne From left, Michael, Jeff, John and Bruce Mewborne III, inside an empty church in San Antonio, where they would have expected hundreds of people at their father’s funeral had it not been for the pandemic.

Others have made a different choice. After Benjamin Quatier, 29, was killed earlier this month in a car accident in Vancouver, Wash., his family made the agonizing decision to postpone his funeral. “He would have wanted everyone to be able to be there,” said Heidi Quatier, his sister.

They held a small graveside service, wanting some measure of closure. A memorial service for everyone else will come later.

But that brings up other difficulties, they said.

“It prolongs the pain,” Quatier said. “You never get over it but … I’m afraid that with time, we will feel better and a postponed memorial will reopen some wounds and we’ll have to start from scratch.”

Experts say the constraints of the epidemic put a particular strain on mourning families.

“You almost could not design a circumstance that more greatly complicates people’s grieving,” said Robert A. Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis and the director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition.

“The funeral, or a memorial service, in any religious or secular tradition, tries to give meaning to the events of the death,” said Neimeyer, who has extensively studied grief and how people mourn. “It’s a rite of transition that has evolved in every culture for good reason. We need to have these forms of ritual celebration. … We’re denied that by this crisis.”

And it will only get more challenging as states continue to tighten their restrictions. Washington state recently prohibited funerals under the governor’s emergency proclamation restricting public gatherings and closing “nonessential services.”

Funeral homes across the state can still receive bodies, however. Russ Weeks, president of Weeks’ Funeral Homes in Washington state, said the calls his staff have been making to families delaying or canceling services have been excruciating.

During the first week of March, Weeks said, his funeral group served one family whose relative died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Another affected family came in the second week. And during the third week of March, Weeks said, they were preparing for four families with loved ones killed by the disease.

Weeks said his staff is taking extra precautions when dealing with bodies if the virus is present, donning extra protective gear to avoid posthumous transmission.

“We are telling funeral providers, the initial pickup from the place of passing is going to be your top source for contraction of [the virus], so be cautious,” said Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also warned relatives not to touch the remains of someone who died of the virus, saying that people should avoid “kissing, washing, and shrouding” bodies.

Tracy Curren Wieder understands that all too well.

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She said she got the call early Tuesday morning about her father, Richard Curren, a 77-year-old retiree. Curren had gone to a hospital from his assisted living facility just a few days earlier, and it was initially thought he had bacterial pneumonia, she said.

But last week, the hospital called to tell her that her father had passed away — and that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, she said.

Her mother, Sheila, had lost her husband of 57 years, Wieder said. Their mourning is complicated, she added, because they have to grieve in isolation, as both could have potentially been exposed to the virus.

“It’s been very difficult, because when you’re grieving, that’s when you want your friends and family around you,” said Wieder, who lives south of Miami. “And here we were grieving in extreme isolation.”

Her brother, Erik Curren, a city council member in Staunton, Va., said that under normal circumstances, he would fly to South Florida to be with relatives at a memorial service, but traveling amid the pandemic seems too dangerous.

“It’s part of the mourning process to be able to figuratively say goodbye,” Erik Curren said. “Grieving is meant to be collective. … Society has had public grieving rituals for centuries, and I think there’s good reasons for that.”

He said he hopes to participate in a memorial service after the pandemic passes, saying that until then, he feels like “things are sort of unfinished.”

Under normal circumstances, Wieder said, they would plan to have an open-house memorial for her father, with people flowing in to share memories.

“But we’ve been deprived of all that and all those people,” she said. “They want to see my mother, they want to hug her, they want to cry with her and say how much they loved him.”

arelis.hernandez@washpost.com

mark.berman@washpost.com

Berman reported from Washington.

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