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Good Grieving in the Coronavirus Era

Create safe and meaningful memorial and burial services.
by Faith+Lead | May 21, 2020

By Jennifer Hackbarth

This time of crisis and pandemic has impacted all our crucial grieving rituals. As congregations and leaders learn more about virtual worship and physically distant connection, we can use these skills to create opportunities for social support during grief and loss. What steps can pastors and leaders take to create meaningful and safe memorial and burial services in this difficult time?

Plan for safety first. Consider whether any type of indoor gathering is necessary. Brief outdoor gatherings with 10 people or less, all masked and standing at least six feet apart, are the safest gatherings we can create at this time, and even these carry risks. A virtual service is the safest choice at this time.

If an in-person service is planned, leaders need to be prepared. Our boundaries may be challenged and even ignored. What will happen if a larger than expected group gathers at the cemetery? What if not everyone is masked? It’s crucial to be upfront and clear with families about our expectations. If a funeral home will participate, work closely with them ahead of time to ensure all precautions are taken and followed. 

We also need to anticipate the intense social pressure people feel to physically comfort one another when they gather in person for a memorial service or burial. Wearing a mask feels odd; not hugging a grieving loved one feels rude and disrespectful, even though it is a loving act during a pandemic. Additionally, outdoor settings and masks may give people a false sense of safety. People who haven’t seen one another in person in weeks or months will ignore safety recommendations to be close to one another in the moment. People may ask to hug their pastor and feel sadness when the hug is declined. Markers for appropriate physical distancing may be placed in the cemetery and the leader will need to be vigilant about helping people stay safe.  

Be creative in connecting people. Here are some ideas to help grieving families receive social support in this time of physical distancing:

  • Include family and friends in planning the virtual service by asking them to share memories, writings, poems, music or pictures during the gathering. Invite them to wear the same color in honor of the loved one’s favorite sports team or college.   
  • Think of ways to involve the senses in online gatherings. Families could share a special recipe of a loved one who has died and ask attenders to prepare it in their own homes, so they can enjoy it during the virtual gathering. Smelling and tasting a grandmother’s beloved chocolate chip cookies as you remember her life adds depth of meaning and connection.
  • Condolences and memories that are shared online may be printed and placed in the cemetery or wherever the small group of family members is gathering, with balloons or flowers as a physical representation of the larger community with them in spirit. Place them six feet apart to help with physical distancing.
  • Advertise to the local community that the church bell will ring at the time of the memorial service (one congregation rang the bell for each year of a person’s life). All who can hear it may take a moment to pray and remember the person who died. Be diligent about informing the community ahead of time so the ringing doesn’t cause alarm.
  • Create a special worship bulletin that can be shared as a memento with the family and their loved ones. It could include pictures, song lyrics, poems and a written reflection from the pastor or worship leader.

Some people are choosing to host drive-through gatherings, which involve the grieving family standing with the casket or urn at a location as people drive past and wave. Do this only in close coordination with local law enforcement, and with great care. This type of gathering encourages people to leave their homes and provides an opportunity for groups to assemble. As with all in-person gatherings, boundaries and expectations must be made clear before the event takes place. 

Remember. Virtual gatherings will not fully take the place of in-person social support, and physical distancing complicates the grief process. Plan to give grieving families extra pastoral and congregational support now and in the future. Create consistent opportunities for online gathering and sharing. Plan a special All Saints’ Day worship in November and offer a Darkest Night service in December to give people space to mark the difficult griefs and losses of these months. 

As leaders, we will be doing this holy work for years to come, and our developing skills in creating connection and meaning in new spaces will benefit our communities well beyond this time of crisis. 

Jennifer Hackbarth is the lead pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. She blogs at: 

Photo by Brett Sayles

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