Saturday, May 2, 2020

Cemeteries and Funerals in the Time of Coronavirus

While it is true the dead cannot get coronavirus, their world is not spared the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re lucky, you haven’t experienced anything related to death in these dark times. But you’ve probably heard bits and pieces related to things like pickup truckloads of bodies unceremoniously removed from nursing homes (click link to read), relatives mortally passing the virus on to their kin, or bodies being cremated along with all their identifying information (wallets, insurance cards, etc.). Graveyards and cemeteries have not been closed to visitors as most other public spaces have, but the kind of activity present in them has radically changed in the spring of 2020.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY
On a positive note, many more people are enjoying these green spaces in ways for which they were intended. They were designed in the Victorian era as serene getaways from the noisy cities, arboreal sculpture gardens to be strolled and picnicked in. The purpose was to help people accept death in a kinder, gentler fashion – enter all the angel statues. And people are strolling through cemeteries once again, being one of the few spaces open at this time when parks and museums, galleries and playgrounds are all closed.

Springtime in the Cemetery
As much beauty as I find in such places, I do sometimes lose sight of the grief inherent in their midst. Some years ago I was in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA (outside Philadelphia), and saw to my amazement, a wonderful black Victorian funeral carriage – complete with a pair of harnessed white horses! It was parked alongside the funeral home. I asked the gentleman who was tending the horses if I could photograph him and he graciously said yes. We chatted as I made photographs and I must have assumed the setup was there for show. Finally he said something that stopped me in my tracks – “The parents will be arriving shortly for the funeral.” (You can read more about this in my original blog post.)

Victorian funeral carriage, West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA

I was similarly stopped in my tracks this past week when I read my friend Alexandra Mosca’s article, “A Funeral Home Director’s View of the Pandemic." Alexandra is a funeral director in New York City and writes of the current difficulties faced by families of the recently deceased, where the funeral director must turn the grieving away from the grave. Imagine watching your mother’s casket being lowered into her grave, while your family watches from their car windows. Worse yet, imagine all the funeral homes in your vicinity so busy with the dead that they cannot accommodate your family’s needs.  Read the article here for a part of life that is being tremendously affected by the health crisis.

So while I explore cemeteries as much as I can, I never lose sight of the fact that others may be there for altogether more serious reasons. Please be respectful.

For further reading (links thanks to my friend Bill McDowell):