Drive-in funerals. Zoom memorials. How the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing have changed the way we mourn.

Beth GreenfieldSenior Editor
Yahoo Life
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, funeral services, like the one depicted at Mission Park Funeral Chapels, are shown on an outdoor screen to drive-up attendees. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, funeral services, like the one depicted at Mission Park Funeral Chapels, are shown on an outdoor screen to drive-up attendees. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The above photo, on first glance, looks like a nostalgic, if typical, drive-in movie theater in middle America. But look a little closer, and you realize, with a bit of a sinking feeling, that it’s just one undertaker’s response to the coronavirus pandemic’s social-distancing reality: a drive-in funeral, at which mourners can safely gather together and witness the ceremony — on the al fresco big-screen, from the isolated safety of their cars and trucks.

“We understand the importance of getting together with friends and family to pay your respects and say goodbye,” Michael Hoffmann, manager at the Mission Park Funeral Chapels in San Antonio, Texas, tells Yahoo Life. But since public gatherings are limited to a total of 10 people (as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the owners and staffers put their heads together, restructuring their large parking lot — typically used for lining up funeral processions — and to erect a massive movie screen. They began offering the drive-in service a month ago.

Now, funeral ceremonies continue in-house, while guests watch outside, on-screen. “We’ve removed the curtains from the side wall, and the people in attendance can see the guests. The outdoor theater provides a live video screened image of the actual funeral service itself, and you can tune in on the car station and be there as if you’re with the family. Then, they can honk three times upon departure, to show support.”

Further, the company offers drive-thru visitations — a more private way to show respects, allowing visitors to drive under a covered area at the back of the funeral home, one at a time, and see the casket and, behind it, the bereaved family. “They can wave at the family from their cars,” Hoffman notes. “And we provide a digital sign-in screen that we disinfect after each individual.”

For people that don’t want to leave their homes, he adds, the funerals are simultaneously livestreamed via their website.

“It’s an unwritten chapter in our lives right now that we’re going through, and we’re having to be creative, with input from the owners and directors and staff who chose this as a profession and want to support people,” he says. “We’ve had to think outside of the norm.” 

And Mission Park is certainly not alone right now — a time when, paradoxically, thousands of people are dying of the coronavirus (more than 36,000 in the U.S. so far) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and social distancing is keeping bereaved survivors from gathering. It’s left all those involved with shepherding bewildered families through the rituals of mourning with a dilemma: How to help people honor a loved one’s passing when so many of the elements we’ve come to rely upon emotionally, from large gatherings to simple hugs, have been taken away?

A tablet ran a live video feed of the Stitzel Family Funeral Home in Muhlneberg, Pa., where a drive-up viewing allows mourners to pay their respects while maintaining social distancing during the Coronavirus / COVID-19 crisis. (Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
A tablet ran a live video feed of the Stitzel Family Funeral Home in Muhlneberg, Pa., where a drive-up viewing allows mourners to pay their respects while maintaining social distancing during the Coronavirus / COVID-19 crisis. (Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Answering that has called for an unprecedented combination of creativity and simply settling, as many funerals are now held privately or livestreamed, if at all, and rituals specific to certain religions — such as the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, which is when supporters visit and comfort a bereaved family during the week-long mourning period — are now occurring from a distance, through Zoom or other video platforms. And other funeral homes around the country are offering drive-up viewing and livestreamed services.

It’s a shift, and a loss, that pains some experts.

“My heart is broken for all these families,” Alan Wolfelt, death educator, grief counselor and director of the Colorado-based Center for Loss and Life Transition, which is a resource to mourners and those who serve them, tells Yahoo Life. “When you have a ceremony, it creates an element of intimacy and sacredness, and there are now so many restrictions that inhibit your ability to move toward them.” It’s human to try to create meaning when you’re searching for meaning, Wolfelt says, and that’s where even an abbreviated ritual can be helpful.

“But even with a limited ceremony, there are elements of mourning being put on hold,” he says. “So, it’s harder to acknowledge the reality of loss — to shift from presence to memory — when you haven’t had the opportunity to record that grief in a public way.”

What a ceremony attempts to do, Wolfelt stresses, “is initiate you — not create closure, but provide the rites of initiation that get you started grieving.” Now, with the adjustments people must make because of the coronavirus, “you’re grieving but you can’t mourn. And there’s less opportunity to feel a sense of support that comes in the context of mourning, which is the shared response to loss.”

At Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon, Mass., a live funeral video was created for a couple who died of COVID-19 at a nearby nursing home. (Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
At Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon, Mass., a live funeral video was created for a couple who died of COVID-19 at a nearby nursing home. (Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Wolfelt, who educates funeral directors as part of his work at the center, is a passionate believer in the importance of a funeral, and has written much on the “whys” of funerals, which he names as: Reality (to help one begin to accept the finality of death), Recall (helping us convert our relationship with the deceased person from presence to memory), Support (funerals are for the living), expression (allowing the grief process to begin with public mourning), Meaning (allowing space regarding our existential search for it) and finally, Transcendence. “Funerals have a way of getting us to wake up,” he writes, “to think about what we truly care about and how we want to spend our precious remaining days.”

Says Sarah Yorke, a retired Unitarian-Universalist minister and author of Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death, the first rituals after a death, whether funerals or cremation ceremonies or something altogether different, “are really the beginning” of grief. “But to be able to let go and move forward, the ritual is the first thing you do,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Ritual is the container of emotions. It’s where you can go into a deep place, safely, with both the sense of community that holds you and the guidance of somebody who is there to hold the space.”

And in a culture that is already grief-avoidant, notes Wolfelt — with people wanting to “go around grief rather than through” — this moment in time can easily enable that pull if we let it.

In fact, shares Wolfelt, who is also a therapist, a client emailed him just this week that the lack of a funeral for a recently deceased loved one made it “feel like it didn’t even happen.” And he meant it in a good way. “Our culture tries to be happy when we should be sad,” he says. And that can add to, rather than help with, depression, anxiety and other painful feelings.

There are still ways to mourn, even now

Yorke believes that this is actually a moment of opportunity. “I personally don’t think it has to be such a loss,” she tells Yahoo Life regarding the forced changes to how we mourn. “I do believe there are ways for people to do it. At Legacy.com they help people do their memorials through video conferencing, so the technology is already there, because people live in different parts of the world. That’s a reality we have. What has changed is you can’t get on an airplane and just be with your family.”

Her suggestions, some taken from the pages of her own book, include many non-denominational ideas for creating meaningful rituals around one’s passing — lighting a candle and speaking, even if it’s only with one other family member, about the departed, and what the person meant to you. Read a poem — she suggests “We Remember Them,” which happens to be a Jewish liturgy but is not religion-specific and generally about loss and remembrance. You can create a memorial garden, or devise a special ritual with post-cremation ashes. You could gather loved ones on Zoom.

“It’s about creating a space, designating it as a time apart, and holding that space,” she says. “I believe that can be done — not ideally, but it can be done.”

Not being able to say goodbye to a loved one’s body before a burial, she concedes, is a real loss.

But, she says, “It’s something people deal with when people die at sea, or during major disasters or accidents with bodies never recovered. There may be some wisdom there from people who probably found ways to deal with it.” Finally, “A lot of people would sooner ignore their need to do a ritual rather than devise a way to do it. And our culture makes that easy,” she adds, concurring with Wolfelt, who has offered his own suggestions, to the funeral directors he works with, about how to help families mourn right now.

“Video meetings are so much better than no gathering at all, and you can help facilitate this,” he writes in a recent letter of guidance. “Also, encourage the family to begin to plan a larger memorial service to be held later on.” For now, he stresses, a small service, either in person or online, is meaningful. “Some funeral homes will have a balloon on a chair, each representing a guest who couldn’t be there,” he tells Yahoo Life, adding that he was impressed with the drive-in funeral idea in Texas.

“It’s creative and it’s appropriate, based on the restrictions and overcoming them by still gathering and bearing witness,” he says. “You’re only limited by your creativity, and some funeral directors are very good at that. Most are very caring, compassionate people, and right now they’re first responders. This is a real opportunity to give them a pat on the back.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides. 

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle

Want daily lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.

What to Read Next