Everything’s changed. We’re now living in a world we didn’t expect a month ago, a week ago, or even yesterday. It’s a world of constant flux with changing mandates and directives coming from the state and federal level. And yes, it’s a world of fear. Masks and gloves are a common sight at the grocery store. Handshakes are verboten. Even a cough elicits stares. Six feet apart, and groups smaller than 10, home schooling, and Zoom meetings, is our new norm, our social distancing. Our new normal is life with COVID-19. The people on the front lines, doctors and nurses, are featured at the top every hour on the news. But what about the other people on the front lines? The men and women handling the victims, the aftermath? The funeral directors.
I had a chance to speak with Merilyn Vines, president of Vines Funeral Home in LaFayette Alabama about their first COVID-19 case.
“At least with AIDS we had a sense of what the virus was…with this,” Merilyn pauses, “you just don’t know.” The uncertainty is palpable in her tone. “The first one is always,” she searches for the right word, “special. Because you don’t know what’s coming.” And she’s right. We don’t know what’s coming, but funeral directors across the globe are prepared to step up in the face of disaster.
During the writing of this piece, the Governor Ivey issued a statewide “shelter in place” proclamation for Alabama. Four states remain that have county-by-county issued proclamations and five states have no such orders. The rest of the country is on lockdown to quote the lingo of the newscasters, “flatten the curve.”
Vines Funeral Home’s first COVID-19 case is like so many cases unfolding across the nation in that it’s tinged with additional tragedy due not to the disease, but to the “cure,” the lockdown. The decedent’s child lives within driving distance, but would have to quarantine for 14 days if she leaves her home state which isn’t feasible given her work situation. There’s a sister, but she lives out west, and her health is such that commercial flight in this COVID world is impossible, possibly a death sentence. Thankfully, there’s a local family member who has stepped up to facilitate the services.
“[The decedent] wanted a simple funeral, so webcasting wasn’t an option,” explains Merilyn, as she outlines the heartbreaking situation of this daughter and sister unable to attend a funeral because of the lockdown.
As funeral directors we’re trained to intervene in time of crisis. We help the family make meaning of the crisis with the funeral service so they can make those first steps in their grief journey. The crisis is now at our door. It’s everywhere, even small-town Alabama. And it’s presenting new challenges for funeral service to overcome, some seemingly insurmountable like giving a daughter and sister closure when they can’t attend the burial. But we rise above and make it happen. We always do.
When I asked Merilyn how she was going to proceed in the coming days, and coming cases, she replied, “We just do the best we can…and pray.”