Grief, interrupted: Families delay funerals, watch burials from afar

Special Reports

How families and the funeral industry are adapting to death during a pandemic

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — “He was my hero growing up. He was kind of that guy that just did everything for his family,” Amy Newrones said. Her father, Jerry Strong, passed away last month after battling cancer for several years. His funeral should have been this past weekend. Instead, Newrones and her family have had to put it on hold indefinitely.

It’s a familiar tagline in obituaries these days: “Due to current health matters, a memorial service will be held at a later time…”

Jerry Strong, 76, passed away in February in Woodburn. His family has had to postpone his funeral service indefinitely (Photo courtesy Amy Newrones).

First it was limitations on crowd sizes and social distancing recommendations. Now, funerals are all but impossible given Governor Kate Brown’s “stay at home” order, issued Monday.

“We had the church, we had the programs, I had the obituary in the paper,” said Newrones, who lives in Canby. Just days before the trigger, she called it off. “My sister and I just really wanted that closure for us … as part of the healing process. But at the same time we just didn’t want to take the risk.”

While she’s devastated to have lost her father, Newrones said she is grateful he passed before the coronavirus response escalated and visits to assisted living facilities like the one her father lived in became more challenging.

“My sister and I were able to be there with him as he transitioned,” she said. “Right now I can’t even imagine how people are dealing with having a loved one that is in those final days and not being able to be there with them.”

Newrones’ father was cremated, which she said made the decision to postpone a service easier.

Buck Blackmon, a funeral director at Rose City Cemetery & Funeral Home, said he had to postpone three services within a day of the executive order. They’re still doing burials, but “family basically has to watch from the road.”

Tim Waud, a funeral service practitioner in Oregon City, said “Currently we’re having people that are going ahead with immediate burials, which means there isn’t a graveside service.” He added that family can still show up at the cemetery, but are asked to stay in their cars and, if they do get out, to maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

Waud said he and his colleagues had a sense this was coming, even before Brown’s “stay at home” order. Yet, they’ve had sleepless nights figuring out how to tell grieving families.

“Right now I think everybody is really understanding of these measures. It’s for public safety and their safety as well,” he said. “Knowing that a later time we can all get together … and have the fellowship and camaraderie that comes with celebrating someone’s life.”

Oregon City’s Mountain View Cemetery is still doing burials, but funerals are on hold, with no solid end date in sight. City communications coordinator Kristin Brown said most people have been willing to reschedule.

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

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On the grounds of the Willamette National Cemetery (KOIN, file)

On any given day, the Willamette National Cemetery may host up to 20 funeral services for veterans or their family members. Those services are on hold indefinitely, but the cemetery is still performing burials.

Willamette National Cemetery is part of the VA National Cemetery Administration. Monday, the NCA announced committal services and the rendering of military funeral honors would be on hold indefinitely as a matter of public health and safety. The same day, Gov. Brown announced her “stay at home” order.

“We were proactive in the approach and we started reaching out last week to family members … to reschedule or offer them direct interment with a future memorial service at a later date with military honors,” Willamette National Cemetery Administrative Officer Anthony Sessions said.

Also proactive: River View Cemetery. Executive Director Rachel Essig said she’s never experienced a disruption this dramatic during her career. Funeral homes and cemeteries have had to overhaul policies and are facing the same shortages of personal protective equipment seen in the medical field. However, she said her management team was ready with a contingency plan in case the governor decided to close businesses. They’ve now closed their mausoleum, many employees are working from home, and on-site staff are staggering shifts, conducting business by appointment only.

Rachel Essig, executive director of River View Cemetery, says the coronavirus response has impacted her industry in a way she’s never experienced before (Hannah Ray Lambert)

“It’s really disappointing and heartbreaking because funeral homes and cemeteries are sanctuaries for people to say goodbye,” Essig said. “And for that not to happen in a traditional manner with ceremony is difficult and it’s heartbreaking and we understand, but we also have to protect our health.”

The funeral/cemetery industry has been designated as critical infrastructure by the federal government, but Essig said she would like to see Oregon’s governor address the workers as well.

“We’re part of the public health chain, so we need to stay healthy just as much as a doctor or nurse needs to stay healthy,” she said.

Public health is front and center for Newrones and her family, even as they cope with their loss.

“We have to all be socially responsible right now … even in all your grief, you have to think about others,” she said. “This is not a time to be selfish.”

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