July 15, 2020

Winnipeg
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Grief observed: leading my first funeral in the COVID-19 era

As I scraped the grave site mud off the bottom of my dress shoes, a wave of sadness swept over me. 

It wasn’t the usual sadness that accompanies a funeral, but a sadness at how the circumstance of our world has changed everything—even grief.

Touch is so important, particularly when faced with grief. How do you comfort a grieving young adult without touch? Without a handshake, touching someone's arm, or a hug?

How do you convey both dignity and care to those gathered to grieve when most of the initial communication is about new pandemic protocols? In place of opening words of comfort, I have to explain how we are reinventing the funeral.

It was decided that the funeral would be at the graveside; no church or funeral home chapel was used.

Our vehicles arrived at the cemetery gates. We waited to follow the hearse through the winding road of the old cemetery. The funeral cortege stopped at the graveside, and the casket of the deceased was set on its wheeled stand for a time of viewing.

In the sharp spring wind, family and friends filed slowly by, widely separated, much like a queue of shoppers waiting their turn to get into Safeway. Family members stood off to the side; family members stood off to the side while mourners stood awkwardly at a two-meter distance to share words of comfort.

Those moments, which would usually be private, had to be expressed from far away—which meant everyone else could hear them, too. All the tenderness and compassion seemed to be drained from the moment.

The pallbearers carried the casket to the prepared grave. Some stayed there, and some returned to stand by or sit in their cars for the remainder of the service.

In keeping with guidelines, only ten people were permitted at the graveside, widely separated.  In place of opening words of comfort I had to explain COVID-19 protocols; how we could provide comfort to each other when touch was not allowed.

Where I would have wanted to speak quietly and tenderly, I needed to speak the scriptures, prayers and meditation loudly and clearly so that those standing at a distance by their vehicles could hear the service.

The daughter of the deceased had prepared a eulogy and tribute. But she was so soft-spoken it would have been lost in the breeze. So I read it on her behalf; even that special moment was taken from her.

The music plan—a musician with a guitar singing Amazing Grace—was swapped out for a bluetooth speaker connected to my iPhone. There was no slide show like we would have had in a church service to show the life and relationships of the deceased, who she was and all who loved her.

Following the service, I shifted from the role of pastor to that of COVID-19 protocol officer to make sure everyone remembered to maintain our commitment to being a gathering of no more than 10.  Again, there was an awkwardness as mourners wanting to comfort each other held their distance.

Following the service, people went their separate ways. There was no time to gather, share food and fond memories and funny stories about our interactions with the deceased.

As the last car to leave the cemetery, I realized that this is the new normal. It was a new kind of grief observed—a new grief for those who lose loved ones, and a new grief for me, as a pastor who can no longer offer the comfort they need, and that I want to give.

John Neufeld is lead pastor at The Meeting Place, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in downtown Winnipeg.

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