Three weeks ago, Seth Fischer’s father, Kurt, died in a Jamaica Plain assisted living home, where a staff member on his floor tested positive for COVID-19. It’s not clear if that’s what killed him — tests were hard to come by at the time, and still are — but Fischer was left grieving, unable to say goodbye at his father’s bedside, or even his graveside.
"It's an undeath, almost," Fischer said. "It is a death, but it's hard to mourn in the way that I have when I've lost people in the past. ... I just feel completely powerless.”
Fischer lives in Los Angeles, and he couldn’t get to Massachusetts during the pandemic. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if he did. Visitors are barred from senior living facilities, and funeral homes across the state have been forced to alter wakes and funeral services.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of nearly 2,900 people in Massachusetts and has ground most aspects of usual daily life to a halt. It has also ushered in a new normal around how we grieve, how we honor lost love ones and how we comfort each other. And the funeral industry has been forced to adapt accordingly.
Funeral homes are operating under new state and CDC guidelines. Workers must wear protective personal equipment around the dead — like masks, gloves and gowns. They’re encouraged to cremate and bury people more quickly, with regulations requiring a 48-hour waiting period put aside for now. But perhaps the greatest challenge is the required social distancing. There is a 10-person limit for loved ones attending a wake or funeral.
“This is in the best interests of the public that we can't be doing business as usual,” said C.R. Lyons, president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, which has 500 members. The changes are difficult, he said, but he understands their importance.
“We need to protect ourselves and our staffs and our families, and recognize that this isn't the time for gathering,” Lyons said.
No hugs, no consoling and no real closure with family — at least not now.
For Father Thomas Washburn of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River, that’s the most heartbreaking part — the lack of comfort.
“The sight that's in my mind and in my heart over and over again is just the many people that I've seen who are just sort of crying almost literally inconsolably," he said. "They're crying at the loss of their loved one and no one can come near to console them. So that's been really, really difficult.”
Each day, more people are discovering the challenges that accompany loss during a pandemic.
Dahria Williams-Fernandes is the funeral director at the Floyd Williams Funeral Home near Upham’s Corner in Dorchester, which serves a large minority community disproportionately struck by coronavirus. She said her funeral home has had a big uptick in calls — nearly seven a day, compared with 15 per month before the pandemic. Most of the deceased are COVID-19 patients, she said.
“It says on the death certificate: pneumonia, respiratory failure. But the next thing you know, it was COVID,” she said.
It falls upon Williams-Fernandes and her colleagues to take the state-mandated precautions and to explain to families that they should expect wakes and funerals to be different than usual.
“Two people at a time will enter into the building from their cars," she said, explaining the funeral home's protocols for a wake or funeral. "They're ushered in by a funeral director, into the building. They come and pay their respects. They head right back out. Then we allow another two people to come in. And it’s just basically rotated for a good hour.”
The Faggas family in Watertown has run Faggas Funeral Home for three generations. Adrianne Faggas said her father, Nick, was among the few who embalmed bodies during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. During today's health crisis, she recognizes just how important her family’s work is. She said that they have seen 16 COVID-19 cases in the last three days.
“We're just trying to keep up with the ... universal precautions and the long hours," she said, "trying to get everybody having a, you know, a dignified, decent burial.”
Even with the challenges, people are finding a way to come together as best they can.
Seth Fischer said that his family held a private virtual funeral for his dad and a separate, larger one on Zoom, with about 100 participants. Kurt was a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the director of its Mind, Brain, and Education program.
“It was lovely to hear all the stories," Fischer said. "I kind of wonder if, you know, all of those people would have been able to come if it were in person.”