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Funerals a time when support is needed most

The pandemic has altered what is most critical at a funeral--community support, sharing and gathering.

Maria Jackson wouldn’t call herself an overly traditional person.

But in the weeks that passed since the funeral of her grandmother Nina Timoteo, Jackson realized why the traditional funeral has helped families with the grieving process. Jackson’s grandma, who was 96 years old, was laid to rest on Oct. 31 during a private funeral service at Edmonton’s Park Memorial Funeral Home.

COVID-19 has meant restrictions to the number of people allowed in a funeral home and what the entire experience looks like, with large gatherings no longer allowed. That was hard on Jackson and her family.

“From the end of the funeral and all the way to Holy Cross Cemetery, when it finished at the cemetery--that’s when it hit us,” said Jackson. “The kids and the grandkids, we weren’t allowed to congregate, we weren’t allowed to commiserate or share stories and console each other. We literally just stood there, a bit speechless and a little lost.

“We all got into our cars and went away separately. That was the hardest part for my father as well. He truly wanted that closure; that ability to sit and chat and be together. And that wasn’t going to happen.”

Like so many things, the pandemic has changed funerals too. Government of Alberta guidelines on funerals have evolved, but the constant is that fewer people are permitted to gather in funeral homes today. Group follow-up at a loved one's home afterwards isn't an allowed part of the grieving proces either.

Funeral directors in Alberta see the impact on families they’re trying to help in what is always a difficult time.

"Families have to make hard choices and decisions they otherwise wouldn't have to--who can come, where to have the funeral, can we have it at all, is it safe, or are we putting other family members at risk?" said Brandy Rollins, family service manager at Trinity Funeral Home.

“But tradition is tradition. There's a sense of security in what we do. It's a comfort, and there's stability and predictability for people."

Jackson said before COVID-19, her grandmother’s funeral would have been a large celebration. Timoteo had family in many parts of the country, plus she had been living at a care facility for the past 15 years and knew many people there. Instead, the service included an online video feed, something many funeral homes have been doing for years.

Numbers of people attending funerals virtually has greatly increased during the pandemic, but Park Memorial Funeral Home president Kirstie Smolyk said it just isn't the same.

“It's hard for all of us. Our job as funeral directors is to walk people through such a tough time in their lives, when what they need most is companionship and community support," said Smolyk. "COVID is making that even harder. In most cases, we’re live streaming funerals and a lot of people are tuning in. But the families are not getting that support. It’s different when everyone is hugging and sharing food and telling stories about the deceased, laughing and crying. There’s none of that now--well, I won’t say none. But it’s to a lesser extent.”

Smolyk said the funeral industry is adapting, but more evolution may have to happen.

“If we don’t see restrictions lifted over the next 6-12 months, funeral homes are going to have to do a lot more grief support events online. We’ve always tried to do grief support events for our families, whether with a grief facilitator or at a large event," she said. "But not everyone gets the same benefit out of it, especially when watching a virtual event. People may be sitting at home and have kids running around or they're trying to do it at work. The distractions are quite large."

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