Funerals Must Change In This Time Of Social Distancing

The 2019 interment of Luke Leo House Jr. at the Inglewood Cemetery. (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing life all over Southern California, including our religious and cultural rituals of death — especially those traditions that call on family and friends to gather in tribute.

How do you mourn together in a time of social distancing? Cliff Cresencia from Lakewood reached out to us last week after his father, Guillermo, who was 96, died of a heart attack at a nursing home in Los Angeles.

He wanted to know if his family would be violating city law if 15 of them attended a traditional post-funeral gathering at his father's home in Eagle Rock.

"We are Filipino and typically we would have a large family gathering," Cresencia said. "In normal circumstances there would be 30 or so, the whole extended family."

First, however, Cresencia had to arrange the burial. Forest Lawn Memorial Park Hollywood Hills asked him to keep the graveside ceremony to the absolute minimum number.

So now Cresencia's father will be laid to rest with just four immediate family members standing by as witnesses. They will arrive in separate cars and keep their distance from each other and from cemetery workers, Cresencia said.

One family member watching the graveside service from a car may be Guillermo's second wife, Susan, who has been self-isolating since her husband's death. The nursing home where he died later turned out to be one that had admitted a person who had COVID-19 and she was concerned she might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

"She can't be within that circle during the burial," Cliff Cresencia said. "That's been one of the hard things we had to consider."

His family is scattered around the region, including in San Diego, and some of his father's siblings did not want to let the burial go forward without seeing their brother. But they were persuaded to forego attending.

As for the gathering after the funeral — ultimately Cresencia held a conference call with his relatives to discuss what to do. They decided the safest thing for the entire family was to put it off until the one-year anniversary of his father's death.

Families all across Southern California are going through the same decision process for deaths unrelated to the coronavirus for now, but soon, no doubt for COVID-19 deaths as well.

IF A LOVED ONE DIES, CAN WE STILL HAVE A FUNERAL?

Yes, but with severe limits given that state and local authorities are asking the public to avoid gatherings of more than two people, said Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association.

"Death goes on and the families have to deal with that," Achermann said.

"It's a difficult time emotionally. And we're trying to help these families as best we can navigate through unknown times."

The funeral industry has adapted to changing rules, almost on a daily basis. Originally gatherings were allowed of up to 50 people, then restricted to 15 or 10 people. Now, some companies allow no more than two people, and others allow up to 10 to attend while being careful to maintain distance.

"If there's an opportunity to postpone services, delay, and look at all alternatives," Achermann said. "It's a time to do that and to safeguard everybody's well-being as best we can."

At Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary, President and CEO Patrick Monroe said it had canceled memorial services in its chapels but is continuing with small graveside services, with attendance limited to immediate family, and a limit of about 10 people observing social distance limits.

He recommends families attend in small groups in separate vehicles, remain in the cars while cemetery staff prepare the grave, and then once the employees are at a distance, approach the grave in staggered groups of ones and twos.

SITTING SHIVA ON ZOOM

In the Jewish faith, burials are traditionally done the day after death, unless that day is the Sabbath, in which case one more day may pass. And the mourning is done by a group — a minyan — of at least 10 persons, said Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

After the burial is the traditional eight days of shiva, where family and friends come to comfort the mourners and say prayers. Sometimes hundreds of people can arrive at the house. But that is changing.

"What's really happened in the Jewish community in terms of adaptation is funerals still happen as soon as they can possibly happen. But because we're in an age, a moment of social distancing, a lot of what's happening is virtual," Sanderson said.

A week ago, he participated in a shiva minyan — online. Fifty people participated via a video conferencing app.

"The immediate family was together, the extended family and friends were on Zoom on the internet, and participating just as if they were in the same room," Sanderson said.

"Hopefully this is not going to last much longer because it's so much better to to put your arms around someone than you just look at them on a screen."

TOMB SWEEPING POSTPONED

Other religious traditions will also have to be postponed or altered.

April 4 is the traditional Chinese tomb-sweeping day known as Qingming, when multi-generation family groups show up to honor their late family members.

"This is very, very popular," Monroe said. "And it's not uncommon that we might have 10,000, 15,000 people come to the park for their observances," over the weeks before and after the Qingming Festival weekend.

This year, however, large cemeteries like Rose Hills have canceled access for general public visitation.

FAMILIES MUST FOREGO HANDS-ON TRADITIONS

The Islamic Center of Southern California has its own funeral home, and licensed individuals to prepare bodies for burial, but the coronavirus outbreak is imposing some changes on traditions.

Under normal circumstances, family members and volunteers could work with the mortuary staffers to help wash and wrap the body in the traditional cloth known as the kafan, with burials typically performed within 24 to 48 hours of death.

But with the physical distancing requirements of the CDC and county Department of Public Health, only licensed mortuary employees at the Los Angeles center may perform those ritual tasks, said Kenan Kapetanovic, one of the Islamic Center's funeral directors. That's been a painful adjustment for some families.

"Most families, they do understand it is for the protection of everyone. But it's not easy also," Kapetanovic said.

"This is your loved one that you no longer are able to say your goodbyes, that you're no longer able to maybe participate in the washing of the deceased."

Memorial services that would typically be at the Islamic Center on Vermont Avenue have been canceled, he said. Graveside services at the Islamic Center's two cemetery areas at Rose Hills Memorial Park are usually more heavily attended, but those are now also severely limited.

Only a handful of people may attend, and they are required to stay in their cars and approach the grave one at a time.

No traditional three handsful of dirt may be thrown into the grave, and no witnesses may remain behind to oversee its closing, Kapetanovic said.

Normally, a graveside service would take an hour, but the memorial park is insisting they be completed more quickly, within about 15 minutes, he said.