COVID-19 Coronavirus, Social Distancing & Mourning

When someone you know passes away, it’s customary to pay respects and mourn together. Depending on your religion or culture, the timing of a funeral, wake, viewing, shiva or other gathering can vary. Given social distancing and local rules about gatherings, many may choose to postpone a funeral and memorial service, however the mourner still needs support during their time of loss.

This article helps to answer questions relating to the Coronavirus, social distancing, and provide guidance for families, friends and comforters as it relates to funerals, burials, and ways to express condolences.

Burials, Funerals, Wake & Shivas (i.e., Gatherings)

Depending on a number of considerations, which may include a family’s religious observances or their wishes, along with guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) or state and local governments, the timing, types and manner that individuals proceed with burials and funerals, and gatherings (e.g., memorials, viewings, wakes and shivas) may vary. The mourning family now faces another decision regarding the funeral and final disposition of a loved one. The question of when and where to have a funeral/burial service, and how to mourn the loss of a loved one is front and center. There are now limitations and restrictions on gathering size. Funeral homes are continuously updating procedures to ensure the safety and well being of others by either closing chapels in favor of conducting outside, graveside funerals, or removing chairs to adhere to the principles of social distancing. It is important to note that this may be a departure from pre-planned funeral arrangements and/or the wishes of the family. It is important for extended family, friends and comforters to remain sensitive and understanding to the circumstances and remain supportive throughout. When a death occurs, the funeral home and resources such as provide guidance, answer questions and detailed information regarding the upcoming services and help provide insight about whether to attend, what to expect, and how to assist during this unprecedented time.

What to know about Types of Gatherings for End of Life

Typically when a friend or loved one dies, it is common and traditional for families, friends and the community to express condolences, offer comfort and support by attending the funeral, burial, memorial service, viewing, wake, and/or shiva when possible. It is considered a sign of respect and often helps the mourners cope with the loss of a loved one. In light of current events and in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, there will be modifications to the type of funerals and burials being conducted. Families may limit the number of individuals permitted, along with other restrictions imposed by the CDC, state and local officials. It is important to follow this guidance out of respect for the family and also for the safety of others.

What is a Gathering?

The traditional definition of a gathering is an assembly or meeting that is held for a particular reason; it can be festive, educational, social or a “family gathering”. In the context of loss when an individual passes away there are many different types of gatherings that take place in tandem with a burial, funeral or cremation, including memorial service, celebration of life, wake, viewing, visitation, and shiva. Certain gatherings occur contemporaneously while others may be scheduled for a future date. Below are examples of a few types of gatherings:

  • Viewing: A viewing is an unstructured gathering of friends and family where the body, an urn or a memorial of photographs is typically displayed allowing the mourners to pay their last respects. Viewings can take place at the funeral home or the family home and occur the day before the funeral or the same day. Guests come and go as desired and can stay as long or as little as they want.
  • Wake: Traditionally a wake is a Catholic tradition that is similar to a viewing where mourners gather to offer their condolences and share their grief. Wakes can take place in a home or funeral home and can occur a day or even several days before the funeral. Modern wakes can also take place on the same day as the funeral. In the current context of coronavirus containment and social distancing there are a number of parameters being placed on gathering, including size and type which are relevant and impact funerals, burials, memorials, wakes, viewings and shivas. Burials, funerals and gatherings such as shivas are continuing to take place, but modifications and precautions are now taken.
  • Shiva: In Judaism, shiva, is the first structured period of mourning. Traditionally, the shiva begins immediately following the burial upon returning to the home of the mourners. The shiva traditionally lasts for seven days, depending on the level of observance. At this time, extended family, friends and community show their respect by visiting the mourners in the shiva home, “making a shiva call” to those sitting shiva. At any given time there may be hundreds of people that attend a shiva.

Should friends and family attend funerals, wakes, viewings and shivas?

There are new rules and guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the health and safety of those who attend. It is important to be respectful of the mourning families wishes and also provide appropriate support during a time of grief. Although, the grieving families in general are calmly embracing and accepting the reality of the circumstances, the modification of plans for honoring, commemorating and memorializing their loved one often creates a new type of grief and sense of loss. It is incumbent on family, friends and the community to remain supportive. During this unprecedented time, there is no national standard or norm which has been published, restricting or canceling funerals and burials. Accordingly, paying attention to local news and community announcements help to inform decisions.

Many families now face a new decision, that in some cases is not optional as it relates to the timing and type of funeral, burial and memorial for their loved one. For those who pre-planned, this may be a departure from the planned arrangements, and the opposite of their wishes, creating a new level of grief and stress imposed on mourners.

Mourning and Social Distancing

Knowing and understanding the basic principles of social distancing helps with the everyday issues faced by mourning families, comforters and supporters as it relates to funerals, burials and gatherings.

There are two primary ways to mitigate and reduce spreading of COVID-19 include the following:

  • Distance: Maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another. When attending a funeral, burial or shiva, the location of the memorial service should allow for social distancing. In many instances this may require the removal of chairs for standing only.
  • Clean Hands and do not Touch face: Washing hands regularly with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer can significantly reduce the risk of exposure. Additionally, limiting contact with your face is also important.

When a Public Funeral, Burial and Gatherings are not permitted.

There are a number of unprecedented measures taking place as a result of COVID-19 that will restrict and limit certain gatherings which includes funerals, burials, wakes, viewings and shivas. Consequently, mourners will now experience a new type of grief, when the traditional and common practices observed surrounding end-of-life are abruptly changed.

When an individual passes away, a mourning family receives emotional and physical support from their extended family, network of friends and the community during the funeral service, internment, wakes, viewings, shivas and beyond. Generally, this expression of sympathy is received by physical embraces in the form of a hug at the funeral, burial and gatherings for mournings. In general, these gatherings by friends and the community helps to lift the spirit and deliver support. It is important to realize there will be a new grief felt with an absence of the physical interaction most commonly experienced.

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