How the pandemic has changed funerals and the grieving process

By: - April 16, 2020 11:38 am

When Jim Hansen’s wife, Karla, died of a heart attack earlier this month, Hansen followed the same rules he now applies to every other grieving family who comes to the funeral home he owns in Davison.

He only allowed 10 people at a time to enter the viewing area to say goodbye.

“I have a large family, and rather than prevent people from saying goodbye to [Karla], her viewing was split up over the course of two days,” said the owner of Hansen’s Funeral Home.

Susan J. Demas

To limit the spread of the highly contagious disease, many states now limit the number of people who can attend a funeral. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March stay home order said only 10 people could be present at a funeral or visitation.

Visitations, funerals, graveside services and memorials — all the rituals that families have long leaned on during the loss of a loved one — have been upended by COVID-19. To complicate things further, Michigan has the fourth-most cases in the nation and almost 2,000 deaths, with most Southeast Michigan.

To accommodate the state order and still offer solace to families, funeral home directors like Hansen have become creative.

Melissa Butts, director of Dodds Dumanois Funeral Home in Flint, told the Advance that she allows one group of 10 people to be present at a viewing or funeral service, and once that group has left, up to 10 more are able to come pay their respects.

“I hate having to tell families that have just lost a loved one ‘no,’” Butts said.

Families and friends are making adjustments, too.

Gerry Buckel

When Gerry Beth Buckel’s cousin passed away from cancer in late March, she couldn’t attend the funeral, so she and her sister drove to the cemetery where he was buried, and observed his graveside service from their cars.

“Not being able to get out and hug my cousin’s wife and comfort her was one of the worst things I have ever been through. I sat there and cried from a distance. It’s not something I would want anyone to go through,” said Buckel, who lives in Fostoria.

Buckel said that her cousin’s wife hopes to have a memorial service but wasn’t sure when it would be safe to hold the gathering.

When her aunt died of COVID-19 in April, Buckel had to be careful because of concerns that her uncle had been exposed to COVID-19. At age 61, she belongs to an age group considered at risk.

“There’s some guilt there; I want to go hug him and comfort him, but I can’t,” she said. “I’m taking one day at a time, and tell myself that once the threat of COVID-19 has passed that I’ll be able to see my uncle and hug him.”

People also are finding other ways to support families and show their respect while complying with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing.

Eric Cattane

Eric Cattane, 40, of Lapeer, said his best friend’s father, 77-year-old Robert Sopha, passed away due to natural causes on April 4. Sopha’s funeral and burial took place immediately, but it was the event that took place after that that stayed with Cattane.

“His family held an impromptu parade and drove by the home of [Sopha’s] widow. It was a beautiful gesture of the community,” Cattane said.

And Cattane said he understands and accepts why there are limits on funerals and the need for social distancing. “They certainly wouldn’t want us to endanger ourselves to send them off in the traditional way,” he said. “Our final goodbyes just have to wait.”

Anna Bostwick-Ruhl, 50, of Columbiaville, understands the need to observe social distancing, as well, but that doesn’t make it easier to be unable to offer comfort during times of loss.

Usually, she takes food to families where there’s been a death. But when two family friends passed away from natural causes in the span of two months all she could do was send sympathy cards.

Anna Bostwick-Ruhl

“I feel bad for their families,” she said. “I wish I could have taken them food so they could have dinner without having to cook during their time of grief. I wish I could hug my friends and tell them in person how much their loved one meant to me.

“Now we’re all reduced to Facebook chats and promises of getting together for memorials in the future.”

Tentative memorials are another change brought by COVID-19. Many families and groups of friends are waiting to hold funerals and celebrations of life until the threat of COVID-19 is over.

A future memorial is in the works for state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) who died on March 29 at age 44, and COVID-19 is suspected as the cause.

State Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), who has also fallen ill and is recovering from COVID-19, said plans for a memorial service “worthy of Robinson’s life” have been put on hold for now.

He said Robinson would be remembered as a brilliant person who didn’t enjoy wearing suits, used his size and demeanor to get his point across and enjoyed classic Motown music.

The two became close friends about seven years ago after they had both ran for the same City Council seat in Detroit. Robinson’s death rattled Carter’s whole family, he said.

“I told my wife that Isaac had passed away, and she just sat down and cried,” Carter said.

In the weeks he has slowly been coming to terms with his friend’s death. While he looks forward to celebrating Robinson’s life, he said during the memorial, Robinson’s family and friends will be “grieving all over again.”

Hansen, the Davison funeral director, shares that sentiment.

“Families aren’t holding memorials right now,” he said, “but when they do, their grief is likely to hit them hard.”

There are resources available for people who are grieving after losing a loved one to COVID-19, including a program at Hospice of Michigan.

Another program being offered is an eight-week support group that is completely focused on COVID-19 offered by Dr. Sabrina Black at Abundant Life Counseling and Coaching LLC in Detroit. Black says that the group not only addressed anxiety and grief, but will help people learn how to cope with those emotions in a healthy way. People can register for the support group by calling 313-201-6286 or going online

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Madeline Ciak
Madeline Ciak

Madeline Ciak is a former Michigan Advance reporter. She’s a University of Michigan-Flint graduate and previously worked as a digital media manager at NBC25/FOX66 in Flint and a weekend producer at ABC12.