Part four of our four part series
I was asked to offer my thoughts on how the pandemic has impacted families and grieving. Where do I begin?
We’ve had problems confronting death for a long time; it took a pandemic to get the subject out in the open.
My name is Trevor Crean; I am a fourth generation funeral director and the owner/operator of Heritage Gardens Cemetery in South Surrey.
To look at how the pandemic has affected mourners, we should look at how people mourn. Whether you’re a traditional Catholic arranging for a full burial, or a complete atheist requesting a direct cremation, we mourn by gathering. Gathering for a funeral, a celebration of life, a moment of silence, a candle lighting- humans are social creatures. We soak up and release energy from being in the company of others. After a family has lost someone, especially if they were the caregivers through an illness- they are very drained of energy. Gathering is how we support one another; sharing food, stories, tears and laughter. We hug it out and cry on shoulders. At a funeral, simply being there pays respect to the deceased and their family. It shows that they matter, so much so that all of these people have taken time from their lives to be here, to say goodbye. Taking away the ability to gather, the ability to mourn with one another, is probably as painful as taking away the deceased.
Prior to this pandemic we have long been welcoming cell phones and streaming into the funeral chapel. We’re living in the global village- it’s common that a nephew in Toronto or a cousin in Houston can’t make it to the service and the family streams it for them. I don’t know if irony is the word but now that streaming is the only option for many, I doubt anyone would trade it for being present. Families we are working with have been strained and saddened by the fact that they have had to ask loved ones and friends to stay at home. I can assure you that there are few sadder sights than a graveside service of 3 or 4 family members, seeing one of their own lowered into the ground.
What remains to be seen is the thought we give to memorialization. There’s good reason why English Bay and every other beach in the city is peppered with benches dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Jones- it’s because cremation has replaced our obligation to confront death. Families who do not ascribe their end of life practices to organized-religion have found freedom in the available and competitive direct cremation offerings. For one low price, the company will meet you in your home, sign some pages and handle the transfer and cremation of your loved one, and you get a tidy little box delivered to the house. No embalming, no visitation, no viewings, and the family can put together their own memorial or celebration of life. In a city where burial costs are some of the highest in North America, no wonder families prefer this. Today, 86% of deaths in BC result in cremation, the highest rate on our continent. But what happens to these cremated remains? Sure a good portion end up in Stanley Park or scattered off the beach, but a great deal of them remain at home, in our closets. Families who have scattered often later realize they are missing something, they have no focal point for their feelings. It’s hard to visit grandpa when he’s somewhere between Jericho Beach and Bowen Island. Before, a gathering could be held and there could be ceremony around the final scattering of the ashes. At least a cremation takes the time pressure off of the family so they have the choice to defer a memorial gathering until a later time when this pandemic settles down.
What memorial gardens offer is a place. A focal point for grief, initially, but a gathering place for friends and family in the future. A place to acknowledge the significance of a person loved, who has been lost. We built our memorial garden (cemetery) on family feedback and the experience from over 110 years in funeral service. At Heritage Gardens, we lead with compassion as we help people navigate one of their most difficult times. For better or for worse, this pandemic has changed how we live, and it has changed how we die. Perhaps the silver lining is just how much we’ll appreciate one another, and that shoulder to cry on in the future.