Writer and photographer Neil Kramer has been chronicling on Instagram the details of his life in isolation, which he is unexpectedly spending in his childhood apartment in Queens with his eighty-six-year-old mother, Elaine, and his ex-wife, Sophia. This spring, after the death of an elderly neighbor in his multi-family building, Kramer noted, “It’s been a long tradition in my apartment building of visiting neighbors,” referring to Shiva, a Jewish practice of visiting the family when someone dies. Elaine played mahjong with the neighbor for years; Kramer had known her since childhood. “I think the hardest part for someone like my mom, is no one really knows how to show respect to the family,” he wrote in a post that has since been deleted.
Kramer’s accompanying ethereal photo was black and white, presumably a view down the building’s empty hallway. Ceiling fixtures cast shadows like endless, receding archways; like a portal; like a gateway to heaven or maybe even hell.
How will these disembodied events affect the future practices of the funeral industry—and how will they change the emotional lives of grieving Americans?
The photo alluded to the fundamental and disorienting changes society has undergone since the first Covid-19 cases were reported in the United States, namely forced isolation and the sense that any social contact could be unsafe. Most profoundly, physical isolation has prevented us from showing respect for the dead. For nearly four months, most grieving families were prevented from gathering in a funeral home chapel for a memorial.
But this moment is not unique in recent American history. When I spoke with funeral directors in Brooklyn at the height of the pandemic, they compared Covid-19 to the AIDS epidemic, when shame prevented many families from acknowledging their loved one’s cause of death, and years passed before the sitting president acknowledged the disease’s existence. But perhaps an aspect of the September 11 attacks rings truest for families experiencing loss to Covid-19: then, as now, many cannot see their loved ones’ bodies one last time.
Today technology is providing new ways to arrange a funeral and memorialize the dead, but how will these disembodied events affect the future practices of the funeral industry—and how will they change the emotional lives of grieving Americans?
Perhaps no event has driven home the dangers of maintaining traditional funeral practices during the pandemic than the deadly outbreak in Albany, Georgia. On February 24, sixty-four-year-old retired janitor Andrew J. Mitchell suddenly died. His partner, Emell Murray, found him in the living room, unconscious. Everyone suspected Mitchell had experienced a heart attack.
More than a hundred people attended his funeral, a sprawling group of family and friends who came to pay their respects. But within weeks, Murray fell sick. Six of Mitchell’s eight surviving siblings became ill. The pastor who had performed Mitchell’s eulogy died. Dougherty County hospitals were quickly filled with sick patients. Officials contacted the Martin Luther King Memorial Chapel LLC, which hosted Mitchell’s funeral on February 29, to warn about the possible exposure to disease if their memorials continued as usual. The Albany story ended the denial the national death industry had been in: individual funeral homes began closing their facilities to visitors.
By early April, twenty-nine people in Albany, a town of about seventy-five thousand, had died of Covid-19. By June 1, the total was up to 141. The mourning nation asked, how do we honor the dead when we can’t see them, touch them, gather to comfort ourselves?
There is no greater truth than a corpse. The impossible task of wrapping our mind around the death of someone we love can best be met with the cold fact of their dead body. Which is why, since pretty much the beginning, humans have held their dead, bathed and dressed them, labored to carry their body to the grave, marked the dying of their light. This proximity with a corpse is an indelible reminder, when the grief-wracked mind wanders to the loved one’s smile or smell or voice, that they are indeed gone, no longer in the world in the body we knew.
The pandemic has compounded the grief of death with the loss of a job, free time, savings, security, purpose, identity, as well as the grief of pending loss, of the unknown, of adult children watching their imperiled parents through hospital and nursing home windows—the grief of pending grief. We are isolated with these pains.
“The psyche has a hard time comprehending death as it is, and when people are not physically surrounded by others trying to make sense of the loss,” Becky Stuempfig, a California-based family therapist recently told HuffPost, “it is even more difficult to understand, and eventually accept, that their loved one is no longer alive.”
The traditional funeral industry has long had its detractors. Women, predominantly, comprise a movement rethinking remembrance and corpse disposition, challenging the expense and environmental waste of fancy coffins and embalming, practices whose time has passed. Funeral directors in this new movement, like Amy Cunningham in Brooklyn, Caitlin Doughty in California, and Katrina Spade in Seattle, are already innovating new ways to allow families to create their own funerals. Plain pine boxes, wicker caskets, homemade floral arrangements, self-written eulogies, and body preparation are hallmarks of this new era of funerary practice.
The impossible task of wrapping our mind around the death of someone we love can best be met with the cold fact of their dead body.
But even these innovations—or reversions to prior practice—are nearly impossible now. Cunningham, during a recent phone interview, encouraged loved ones who cannot host public funerals to not think of memorialization as the event of one day, but to extend their rituals and ceremonies over a year. For others, Zoom has provided a way to commune with far-flung and isolated family members. Zach Chatteron, CEO of Gather, a “funeral home software company” recently told Marketplace, “I think this is opening people’s eyes to the power of live streaming funerals.”
“Not only are they in the grieving process,” Denver-based hospice chaplain Diane D’Angelo said of grieving families, “which is really hard because our culture denies death, but it’s a particular poignancy right now because they can’t get hugs from their friends. That goes into the whole PTSD part of this. We are social creatures and we need touch.”
In Italy, obituaries still serve as a source of collective grieving. That ritual could be altered here, too. The City, a New York-based publication, has launched an ambitious project that would bring together journalists to report and write obituaries for as many of those who have died from Covid-19 as they can. The goal is “to put as many names, faces and details to the numbers as possible,” wrote Terry Parris, Jr. along with other City staff members.
Lessons from other parts of the world that have experienced similar disease outbreaks, like Ebola, provide limited relief for those, like Kramer and his mother, who are searching for ways to pay their respects to the dead. “To care is to comfort, to console,” Wvannie Scott-McDonald, the general administrator at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, told Jina Moore in 2014, “Ebola has taken away our comfort. It has taken away our humanity.” It became evident that more sensitivity was needed from those retrieving the dead. New burial protocol and ten-person teams were created to provide safe and dignified burials, Simon Davis wrote at the time. The Sierra Leone Red Cross, for instance, provided instructions to the teams that read, “If they wish, we can also allow a family member to give an object that should be buried with the body.” The gesture offered the most basic proximity.
The Need for Closure
Why do humans make funerals and what purpose do they serve? Sophocles took up the nature and effectiveness of funeral rites in a play in 442 BCE. In Antigone, the play’s titled character closes out the Trojan war by creeping in the night to her brother’s naked, abandoned corpse and dusting it with a layer of dirt. This dead brother, a betrayer, Polyneices, had ridden in with a foreign army to sack his home city of Thebes. The other brother, Eteocles, also dead (by fratricide; the brother warriors killed each other), successfully saved Thebes and was rewarded with a burial of full honors. It is Creon, the king and Antigone’s uncle—she is the daughter of the fatefully maligned Oedipus—who orders the two dead brothers be thusly treated. As punishment for the makeshift burial of her brother, Antigone is buried alive. She hangs herself in her burial chamber. Creon’s son, Antigone’s fiance, then kills himself; Creon’s wife, grieving the death of her son, kills herself. At last, Creon decides to bury Polyneices.
Still, centuries later, when gods old and new are obscured by the digital speed and light of culture, we need to make funerals, to mark death by holding the corpse as sacred. After the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who, with his brother, orchestrated the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013, a bitter, brittle segment of the American public rallied to prevent his burial. In The New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that the logic of these deniers reminded him of Sophocles’s play. Tsarnaev’s body was, after weeks of delay, finally claimed by Martha Mullen, a Christian woman in Virginia, and buried. Like Polyneices, Tsarnaev had committed a crime, but he was not a monster; he was human. To acknowledge that humans can commit evil is valuable; it reminds us that we are all responsible for social ills; it teaches us to remember our communal connection.
Almost two years after the Boston Marathon bombing, Syed Rizwan Farooq and Tashfeen Malik killed fourteen people and wounded twenty-one in San Bernardino, California. In a rental car weeks later, I drove past the makeshift memorial of stuffed animals, flags, and hand written signs that had accumulated on a street corner in a business park near the site of the shootings. Then I headed north, into the Antelope Valley, to find the unpublicized burial place of Faros and Malik’s bodies. I wanted to know why their burials—like those of the Tsarnaev brother, but also others, like Dylan Klebold, who killed thirteen people at Columbine High School in 1999, and Timothy McVeigh, who executed the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995—were so controversial.
What I found was the answer to a much older and more intimate question, one that engaged Antigone and Creon: Why do we bother to bury the dead at all? Surely we understand that the person who once inhabited a corpse is no longer represented, their body empty of what we knew them to be. What is left behind is a husk, the refuse of life, used up rightly or wrongly.
“As humans, it is part of our culture that we take care of our dead,” Daniel Biggins, then a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, told me at the time of my Antelope Valley reporting. Outside the American Islamic Institute of Antelope Valley, where Faros and Malik had been quietly buried, I found Samih Mohamed, the son of the Institute’s founder. Why did his community take in these two, after they had committed so much horror, after they had clearly defied the laws of Islam? “They were human, too,” Mohamed told me.
Funeral rites confirm that the dead were human—and that we are too. But they also provide us with agreed-upon, ceremonial practices that guide us through trauma, denial, and grief. To grieving family members, sitting Shiva, sending flowers, gathering together, singing old songs, embracing friends, all provide us with mental and physical practices that support our emotions and guide us through the shock of death.
Yet the collective need to grieve is being actively denied by the current administration, which has failed to acknowledge the vast number of deaths from Covid-19 because they are “politically inconvenient,” author Colin Dickey said in a recent interview at On the Media. “Right now [we’re seeing] this increasing push to get back to, quote-unquote, normal life. . . If we, quote unquote, get back to normal without, in the process, attempting to come to grips with everything we’ve lost in the past couple of months . . . then we’re going to end up with a country that is deeply traumatized and unable to process that trauma.”
The need to remember our human community is great; we’ve seen that awareness in protests against the police murders of black men and women that continue to burn in cities across the country, and in the widespread alarm that Covid-19 is predominantly claiming our people of color. Public health depends on equality. And equality depends on collective action.
Forever and Ever
Time is the narrative arc of grief. We say that time heals grief (and all things), but I suspect that the real effect of time is to teach us how to better endure the absence of loved ones. Like the muscle it is, the heart grows strong enough to withstand the weight of loss.
In the first weeks of the pandemic, families were planning to postpone their funerals until it was safe again to be in contact with others. But now, as the national infection rate continues to hold steady and epidemiologists’ predictions for a deadly second wave gain traction, the use of Zoom and Animal Crossing may become more common. Are we witnessing a permanent shift in funeral practices, one that will continue after a vaccine for the pandemic is discovered? I recently asked Angela Zito, a professor of religion and anthropology at New York University, if the pandemic would permanently alter our traditional funeral practices. She told me we would likely return to many of our prior ways of marking death, but that it all depends on how long the pandemic lasts—the more time that passes before it is safe to gather, the greater the chance for an upheaval of some of the social traditions we have grown accustomed to.
Like the muscle it is, the heart grows strong enough to withstand the weight of loss.
This moment of compounded grief is tenacious and uncertain; the only balm it knows, perhaps, is justice. “I am thinking about how last week began with 100,000 dead, yet there has been no national mourning,” Steven Thrasher, a journalist and professor at Northwestern University, wrote on Twitter on May 31, as dozens of cities across the country burned, “I am thinking about my late sister, a grief therapist, explaining to me once that unexpressed grief turns to rage. The unexpressed national grief and rage right [now] are connected.”
Protest against police brutality and racial inequality have brought grieving young people into the streets. Here is the collective outpouring. Those pushed aside, those not protected from violence and poor health—African Americans, people of color, front-line workers, the elderly—are being held up as vital members of our human community. Of the five stages ascribed to grief by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—we may be occupied with anger for some time to come.