Coronavirus upends funeral services and mourning process. ‘It’s doubly devastating’

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — Two months ago, Jorge Rivero thought he knew everything to know about running a funeral home.

But despite a 30-year career and a multi-generational family history in the death care sector — his great grandfather was the first to get in the business with the 1947 inauguration of a funeral home in Havana — Rivero said nothing could have prepared him for the way coronavirus has altered his line of work.

“It’s a new game,” said Rivero, the current co-proprietor of the Vior Funeral Home at 291 NW 37th Ave. in Miami. “Everything has changed.”

The pandemic has brought on more deaths and longer work hours, with Vior now taking on double or triple the number of families it might in an average week before. There are also new restrictions on mourners’ ability to say goodbye to their loved ones, whether or not they died of COVID-19.

Due to county orders, viewings at funeral homes are limited to only 10 people, as are graveside burial ceremonies. Adherence to social distancing guidelines keeps many mourners from embracing one another.

“It’s a very cold scene,” said Rivero.

Contributing to the uptick in the funeral home’s workload is a steady stream of people who have fallen victim to COVID-19 — Vior deals with at least one such case every single day, a reflection of Miami-Dade’s growing death toll.

That means death care workers must come to terms with a potentially higher degree of exposure to the disease.

“The front lines are the doctors and the nurses and we got the back end of the frontlines,” said Rivero. “We know we are at risk, we know we are all exposed, but we chose to do this job.”

Unlike colleagues working in hotspots from New York to Northern Italy, Rivero considers himself far from overwhelmed. But he said he is starting to feel the strain on resources and on his funeral home’s capacity to keep pace. That’s partly because cemeteries, having reduced their hours of operation amid the pandemic, are getting backed up with burial requests, which means Vior has to hold on to bodies for longer periods.

“We’re making preparations to open up a bigger freezer here just in case we do see a spike in deaths and get to even higher numbers,” said Rivero. “But I don’t think we will be as high as New York.”

When handling coronavirus cases, Vior employees multiply precautions, donning N95 respirator masks and protective garments to retrieve bodies from hospital morgues. At the morgues, the deceased are double-bagged and each bag is disinfected with a germicidal spray before being taken to a crematory.

Though families afflicted by COVID-19 have had the option to bury their loved ones inside the body bags — with no prior viewing or memorial service allowed — all of Vior’s clients have thus far opted for cremation.

Worried about contracting or spreading the virus, the funeral home is limiting face-to-face interactions with clients as much as possible. Nowadays, almost all arrangements are made over the phone. Urns containing cremated remains change hands furtively, at a table set up outside the facility’s front door.

“In normal times they would come in, they would sit down and we would console them because it’s a very difficult moment for them,” said Rivero. “Now they just want to get out. They don’t know if we have the virus, we don’t know if they have it. They just pick up the remains and go. It’s very fast, and very weird.”

Janet Mouriz, Rivero’s sister funeral home co-owner, agreed. The feeling of intimacy that pervaded the business is no more.

“We are used to hugging and kissing,” she said. But that can’t be done anymore.

Grieving restrictions

The new way of life — and death — the pandemic ushered in has reshaped how Miamians mourn, magnifying grieving families’ pain even when COVID-19 isn’t the confirmed culprit behind a loved one’s passing.

On a recent Tuesday, sisters Ana Batista Marrero and Ada Batista Palenzuela were filling out forms outside of the Vior Funeral Home, making arrangements for their mother’s funeral. She had died the day before, at 86, after suffering two back-to-back strokes.

By the time the death occurred, it already had been a week since either of the sisters was last able to see their mother, also named Ana, because of new hospital rules restricting visitors.

“It was only through the phone that we were able to be with her. ‘Mami, tú me oyes? Mami, nosotros te queremos.’ Do you know how heartbreaking that is?” said Batista Palenzuela. “We couldn’t even be with her yesterday to hold her hand as she went away.”

Finding solace in the funeral services to come was going to be difficult.

“We are doing arrangements and it’s a mission, unfortunately. I mean, look how it is. We have to wait outside. They show us the caskets here and then we’ll come back in a couple of days (for the viewing). We’ll have to go in through the back entrance. It’s just sad,” said Batista Palenzuela.

Adding to the pain of loss for this large Cuban family was knowing there would be a limit on the number of people who would be able to gather in person to pay their respects.

“My mom, they were seven brothers and sisters. We have a lot of cousins. So imagine, we are only limited to 10 people. I understand that’s because of the ordinance, the restrictions, but it’s sad,” said Batista Palenzuela. “There’s no such thing in the Latin community as a small funeral. There’s just no such thing. That’s not our tradition.”

The sisters said they are grateful that their mother tested negative for the coronavirus while hospitalized — the final goodbyes would have to be even hastier if she hadn’t — but what they lament most is that the death coincided with the pandemic’s disruptions.

“I was praying that the Lord would allow her to hang around until this was over. I wanted to be able to give her a proper sendoff, something that my mother deserved,” said Batista Marrero. “But here we are.”

On April 22, after a brief one-hour viewing at the Vior Funeral Home, the Alonso family made their way to Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery in Doral for a burial ceremony. The family patriarch, Humberto Alonso, had died at 64, after a years-long battle with cancer and a recent bout of pneumonia.

According to Humberto’s daughter, Claudia Alonso, the scene that played out at the cemetery was “surreal.”

Family members by the gravesite were clad in surgical masks and gloves, as was the priest in attendance. A Zoom conference call was set up so that additional mourners who had not been allowed in because of the 10-person limit could dial in. Close to 200 people did so. Many were seated in vehicles parked outside the cemetery.

“I think my father’s death in a time of non-COVID-19 would have been difficult, but I do think this situation only compounded the pain,” said Claudia. “It’s doubly devastating.”

In normal circumstances, the family’s Catholic faith would have called for a memorial mass and a big family gathering. But that all had to be dispensed with in the interest of safety.

“My takeaway even now in mourning after everything that’s happened is that, as a grown-up old woman, I never knew I needed a hug from the people that loved (my husband) as much as now, when it’s denied,” said Humberto’s widow Carmen Alonso. “The separation because of COVID-19 has been devastating.”

According to Claudia, saying goodbye to her father was very different — and more unsettling — than saying goodbye to her grandparents, who passed away about a year and a half ago.

“For my grandparents we went to the funeral home, my dad and my aunt sat with Jorge Rivero and picked out the casket and spoke in person about these arrangements. These are things that are horrible to do but they are weirdly therapeutic,” she said. “I haven’t seen Jorge this time around. I’ve only spoken to him on the phone. We didn’t pick out a casket. I said, ‘Jorge, go into the file and pick out the casket my father and my aunt picked out for my grandparents,’ because I know what it looks like. I also didn’t want Jorge to be sending out images of caskets through text messages because, like, that’s weird. That’s so weird.”

There was no physical interaction between the family and Rivero even when exchanging the clothes the family selected for Humberto to be laid to rest in.

“We couldn’t give the clothes to Jorge and Jorge couldn’t give us a hug and be like, ‘Hey, it’s going to be ok,’” said Claudia. “No, we had to put the clothes in a trash bag and leave it outside our front door so he could come pick them up.”

“We are navigating how to mourn in a time of COVID-19,” Claudia said. “And it’s difficult. No one has a handbook on how to heal in a time of pandemic.”


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