After the unexpected death of my friend and co-worker in January 2021 due to COVID-19, I began researching how American death rites would change during the pandemic. While watching the funeral of my friend, a Hindu, on Zoom, I saw the changes that were made to the rituals in order to comply with COVID-19 guidelines.
I will be conducting over 70 hours worth of oral history interviews in the spring and summer of 2021 with professionals from the medical, funeral, and funerary fields, grieving families, and others who work closely with them. This includes grief counselors ,hospice workers, and even spirits mediums.
As a religious historian who is interested in the way different cultures understand death, I observed what seemed to be an important cultural shift in America regarding death rituals. Over 850,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. During this time, funerary practices changed dramatically and, in many cases, failed to provide comfort to bereaved friends and family.
What has changed in funeral rituals?
In our conversations, funeral professionals had described the initial chaos when the size of the funeral had to be drastically reduced, sometimes only with one or two hours’ notice. Many began to innovate using new technologies, which allowed them to have virtual funerals.
Richard Davis of the Cook-Walden Funeral Home in Pflugerville (Texas) described how he used radio technology to help grieving families. They could tune their radios to a certain station and then listen to someone giving an eulogy at the funeral home.
Some funeral directors formed partnerships with wedding videographers, whose businesses were suddenly disrupted by the cancellation or delay of most weddings. The high-quality video equipment that was used to create wedding videos can be used for broadcasting Zoom funerals.
Three mediums also told me that the number of clients who are seeking words from their loved ones who have died on ventilators has increased significantly. The mediums described the anguished families who wanted to know their loved ones had not died alone and that they did not blame them. A particular medium noted the increase in the number of family members who sought to reach out to those who died from drug overdoses due in part to the pandemic.
It was also possible to perform the last rites of Catholic and Episcopal leaders via FaceTime. Sometimes, consecrated oils were administered using a Q tip.
The Jewish tradition that volunteers sit with the body of a deceased person before burial, usually in shifts within a funeral home, became attainable at home. The volunteers, known as Shomer or Shomeret in Hebrew, could not sit with the body like they usually did but worked on an honor system so that someone would always pray and keep the deceased in mind, even when far away.
Muslim leaders have described how they worked with local health agencies in order to acquire Personal Protective Equipment and special training for those who perform the full-body wash of a corpse, known as Ghusl (in Arabic).
These adaptations are a reflection of the long history in which American funerals have been transformed.
The majority of Americans in the 17th and early 18th centuries prepared their bodies and held funerals at home. By the nineteenth century, more Americans died in hospitals due to the availability of medical treatment and the belief that the corpse carried disease. The development of funeral homes was a result. Funeral homes will often tailor their services to meet the specific needs of their local religious or cultural communities.
After the Civil War, embalming became the norm. Mortuary specialists would perform this form of preservation. Funeral homes were the most popular. After the Civil War, embalming became the norm to preserve the bodies of soldiers during their long journey home. Embalmers followed the troops and accepted payment for the procedure in advance.
The funeral industry is now worth a staggering US$20 Billion, and embalming continues to be the most common treatment after death.
The internet has once again transformed funerals. Candi Cann, a scholar of death and dying, has demonstrated how the internet creates new forms of social memory after death. On the anniversary of a death, mourners can leave a message on Facebook or Instagram about how much the deceased is missed. Online marketplaces offer a variety of paraphernalia, such as T-shirts and bumper stickers. They also allow you to create public memorials on the site of the death.
Different people tried to commemorate their loved ones in different ways. Drive-by memorials at Belle Isle State Park display images of COVID-19 Detroit victims. Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images
During the pandemic, such tools were in high demand. In my research, I spoke to several people who had lost loved ones, and they explained that memorial items such as stickers or face masks to commemorate a loved one were created to encourage others to wear masks. As a way to express their grief, COVID-19 mourners in virtual online communities adopted the Yellow Heart.