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'Awful and beautiful': Saying goodbye to coronavirus victims without a funeral

“There is a deep sadness with not being able to comfort one another,” one faith leader said. “I tell families this will pass. They will get through this.”
Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Arvin, California
A family member of Robert Gutierrez, who received a Purple Heart for serving in the Vietnam war, mourns graveside Friday during a noncustomary military burial service amid the coronavirus outbreak. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Lorena Borjas dedicated her life to helping others as an activist for the transgender community in New York City, bailing people out of jail, fighting against transphobia and championing the rights of human trafficking victims.

But when she died this week from COVID-19, the people who loved her the most could not come together to mourn her.

“She held people together,” said Chase Strangio, a longtime friend and collaborator. “When you lose someone like that, you long for a sense of connecting.”

Saying goodbye to a loved one is a ritual that transcends social and cultural differences. Even in secular societies, survivors participate in some combination of prayer and remembrance to honor the departed. These traditions are being upended as governments across the globe impose strict social distancing orders, forcing people to find new ways to grieve.

“We created a Zoom," Strangio said. "It was the only thing we knew to do."

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Borjas died Monday morning in New York, which has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. By 7 p.m., more than 200 people logged on for the virtual remembrance.

The experience felt both overwhelming and incomplete, said Strangio, who helped organize the event. He watched helplessly as people cried alone in their apartments. There were no hugs or shared meals to affirm life. Instead, people typed comments in the chat section or posted photos of Borjas online.

“We have a community of people who already feel like they’re at risk of death all the time,” Strangio said. “The memorial was awful and beautiful.”

Dr. Steven Thrasher, a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, was one of the many people who logged on for Borjas’ memorial. He has been stuck in New York since the coronavirus outbreak brought the city to a standstill and is grateful to be staying with friends instead of alone in his Chicago apartment.

Still, Thrasher felt a sense of anger while watching the memorial service online. Borjas always showed up when people needed her, he said. She frequently accompanied sex workers to court appearances. It was her way of humanizing some of society’s most vulnerable members and comforting them during their darkest hours. But when Borjas died, no one could be there for her.

“It felt very strange and alienating to be bearing witness as a small square on a screen,” Thrasher said.

Nearly all faith traditions offer end-of-life ceremonies. The ritual is so important, people are willing to risk their health just to attend one. Earlier this week, 70 people gathered in a New Jersey residence for a funeral despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home order. At least 15 attendees were charged with violating a rule or regulation adopted by the governor during a state of emergency.

In Georgia, 200 people recently came together to remember the life of a retired janitor. Days after the service, about two dozen relatives who attended the funeral fell ill, The New York Times reported. Epidemiologists are calling it a “super-spreading event.”

Planning a funeral or deciding whether to attend one during the pandemic can be a devastating choice for survivors. A lack of closure could delay emotional healing while prolonged self-isolation might trigger depression, mental health experts warn. Many families simply feel lost, their grief exacerbated by anxiety about a worsening crisis.

Kenan Kapetanovic, director of operations and funeral director at the Islamic Center of Southern California, has been helping families navigate end-of-life ceremonies at a time when gatherings of any kind are prohibited throughout the state. Kapetanovic said families are no longer invited to view remains, and they cannot meet with staff in-person to arrange services.

In the Islamic tradition, the deceased are usually buried within 24 to 48 hours of death. The remains are washed and purified and then shrouded in cloth before internment. But public health concerns make it impossible for even trained staff to handle remains in such a way, Kapetanovic said. As a precautionary measure, all remains that pass through the Islamic Center are treated as though they tested positive for coronavirus.

And families must wait 48 hours before picking up remains to protect staff from potential infection. Then instead of shrouding the deceased in a traditional cloth, remains are first placed inside a body bag.

Once the body is prepared for burial and taken to an internment site, loved ones must either watch from their cars or step out one-by-one to pay their final respects. Touching is discouraged, and no prayers are recited.

“This is not easy to hear,” Kapetanovic said. “It’s a shock for families.”

Like other spiritual institutions, the Islamic Center is now offering streaming services for families who don’t want to forgo prayer and religious rites.

At the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, faith leaders are also encouraging families to seek alternatives to traditional rites in the coming weeks. President and CEO Jay Sanderson said community members are streaming bris, or male circumcision, ceremonies, holding Zoom weddings and even celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs online.

Recently, Sanderson sat shiva, the Jewish tradition of sitting with a mourning family for seven days and nights, for two different community members. It felt like an extension of what has become an everyday reality for millions of people.

“I spend my entire days from morning to night on Zoom calls,” he said. “I see the world through a ‘Brady Bunch’ screen.”

If the experience felt impersonal, it also created an opportunity for mourners from all over the world to participate, he said. At least one of the remembrances included Israeli loved ones who otherwise might not have been able to sit shiva in person.

At a time when everyone is forced to adapt to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, virtual memorials at least offer a space to grieve collectively if only for a short time, Sanderson said. Looking back at the Zoom memorials, he was grateful to hear stories about how one elderly couple met and fell in love 50 years ago.

“There is a deep sadness with not being able to comfort one another,” he said. “I tell families this will pass. They will get through this.”

Both Sanderson and Kapetanovic expect to see community members in person after the pandemic loosens its grip on the country. Strangio is already planning how to honor Borjas in person. He saved all the comments and photos people shared of her and intends to create a booklet as a tribute.

“Her legacy is to make sure that no one is left behind - that people are cared for,” Strangio said. “We rely on each other. That’s what she taught us.”