The grieving woman was several feet from Brooke Benjamin, as health officials recommend in these days of coronavirus.
She was sobbing — hard — over the loss of her husband. Yet, “I couldn’t touch her,” said Benjamin, a funeral director with the Cremation Society of Illinois.
She knows social distancing is necessary. But that didn’t allay the sadness and powerlessness she felt.
“I believe in the healing power of a human touch,” Benjamin said, “and having to sit six feet away from people, to not be able to put your hands on someone and say, ‘Yes, this has happened, and there’s another human being here to relieve some of the pain you feel in this very moment.’ I can’t offer that same comfort.”
“Everybody’s doing the fist bumps and the elbow bumps,” said Ted Ratajczyk, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries, which is recommending funerals be limited to 10 people, standing six feet apart, with graveside rather than chapel services.
“What we in the funeral service have done to bring comfort to the mourners, to the families, has basically come to a screeching halt,” said Leonard Zielinski of the Cook County Funeral Directors Association.
And with the closing of the Cook County clerk’s office, people will have to wait to get copies of death certificates to obtain death and insurance benefits and access bank accounts. Around March 31, the office plans to “issue new guidance on the resumption of non-essential services.”
Funeral homes are removing shared pens and urging visitors not to use computerized sign-in screens. Funeral director Tony Lupo has been signing in guests himself at Cumberland Chapels, 8300 W. Lawrence Ave., Norridge.
If more than 10 people show up at wakes, they’ll probably be urged to wait in the lobby to space themselves out, Lupo said: “It’s almost like going to a bar, and they’re at capacity, and it’s one in, one out.”
Because of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, “I have been telling people no wakes,” said Rebeca Bishop of Caribe Funeral Home, 3314 W. Armitage Ave. “Maybe the immediate family can view the body for a short time. They’re not happy about it, but they understand.”
While some funeral homes livestream memorials, “You can’t livestream the service if there’s no service,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Society of North America.
The psychological impact will be deep, according to grief educator and author Alan D. Wolfelt. “Anything that delays a funeral delays the natural mourning and healing process,” he said in a March 17 message to funeral directors on his website for the Center for Loss & Life Transition.
“You can imagine it’s already difficult losing a loved one,” said Marquita Gatling of Gatling’s Chapel at 10133 S. Halsted St. and 1200 E. 162nd St., South Holland. “It’s just added stress.”
The family of 99-year-old Malachy Towey, a renowned traditional Irish musician from the South Side, postponed services after his death March 11. His children were planning a funeral Mass and luncheon this weekend. But given that he left behind six children, 12 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and a vast network of friends and musicians, delaying the funeral seemed best for all, said his daughter Julia McSweeney.
“It is really said he can’t be mourned in that manner,” McSweeney said. “We have to imagine the horrific things people are going through and keep it in perspective. We’re not the only ones grieving here.”
When former Sun-Times religion editor Roy Larson, 90, died Feb. 25 at Monarch Landing in Naperville, his family planned to have a memorial there. But as concerns about COVID-19 grew, the senior living community restricted visitors. His memorial is postponed indefinitely.
“What we’re in now is a holding pattern,” his son Mark Larson said, “with no end in sight.”
Adding to the family’s grief: No visits are allowed with their mother Dorothy, who also lives at the nursing home.
“She’s alone and is having trouble processing this,” Mark Larson said, “She calls my sister a lot and asks, ‘Where’s Roy?’ She’s there, and we can’t get to her.”
Some death notices are starting to contain the line, “Due to the pandemic and out of concern for our extended family and friends services and shiva will be private.” Funeral director Mindy Botbol crafted that wording with families at Shalom Memorial Funeral Home in Arlington Heights.
The irony, Botbol said, is that “the Jewish community takes comfort in communal ways. One aspect of shiva includes the community joining together to help a mourner get through the first days of grief. Now, the mourners are home sitting by themselves.”
Down the road, funeral directors foresee a funeral boom.
“People are doing smaller gatherings and at some point doing a larger gathering in the future,” said Delphine Michalik, owner of Michalik Funeral Home, 1056 W. Chicago Ave.