USA: Funeral Ministry in the time of Covid-19

  • Friar Timothy P Dore, OFM Conv

Larry Kovak's funeral

Larry Kovak's funeral

For the past year and a half, I have been assigned to the three-parish 'Pastorate' of St Michael the Archangel, the Church of the Annunciation, and St Clement Mary Hofbauer, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Collaborating with a fantastic Pastorate staff, there are four of us who are Franciscan-friar-priests assigned to this ministry; I serve as the Pastor, one is a full-time Parochial Vicar, while the others are part-time and 'semi-retired' Pastoral Associates. These other wonderful priest-colleagues in ministry, ranging in age from 75 to 80, are each "old enough to be my father" and at the age of 57 I am the youngest of the crowd! I am also far younger than a religious sister on who is our Pastoral Associate, and two of our deacons who are both advanced in age. Normally on any given weekend we see about 1,500 parishioners who come through the doors of our three worship sites; we have both English and Spanish speaking parishioners. Usually, the sacramental and liturgical lives of our parishes keep us all busy!

Under normal circumstances and on a regular basis, our work within these faith communities requires us to minister to grieving and bereaving families; we typically have one or two funerals per week within our Pastorate. More recently the number of funerals has increased: we know some have died because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reasons for the deaths of some others were not made known to us, but most were probably within the usual spectrum of funerals we would normally have. There is no doubt all our funeral these days have been terribly impacted by this awful pandemic. It has been very heartbreaking and difficult for everyone, but it is especially true for the bereaved who have been unable to give proper funerals and burials to those they have loved. I have experienced this very directly, and as a friar-priest and minister in the church, I cannot even begin to describe the emotional and spiritual pain these strange funeral encounters have caused me, and everyone so sadly affected!

In Baltimore, Maryland, on Thursday, March 12th of this year, and just a couple of days prior to the onslaught of changes to our lives forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I officiated at what would be my last "normal" funeral. It seems strange to me now to characterize this funeral as "normal;" it was celebrated for a five-year-old boy named +Javier who had struggled for most of his life with some rare form of childhood cancer. Funerals offered for children are never "normal," or so I thought!

On the evening before +Javier's funeral Mass at St Michael, and as is customary, his distraught and grieving parents, his young sister, and numerous others were able to gather for many hours in a local funeral home, and it was crowded there. Family and friends were able to keep vigil for +Javier, they prayed together, they showed their respects, and they gathered closely as they shared great care and affection and offered consolation to all who loved +Javier and his family. Among the tears, there were warm, compassionate, and prolonged handshakes, there were many hugs and long sympathetic embraces, and there were many consoling words closely and quietly whispered into the ears of Javier's parents and loved ones. The next day there were lots of people in the church for +Javier's funeral: along with the many mourners, we had the usual musicians, a cantor and choir, our sacristan, a lector and altar servers, and the funeral director came with his usual entourage of support staff. It was a wonderful show of support for +Javier's grieving family, especially for his most bereaved mom and dad. After the Mass, we had a traditional and solemn funeral procession to the nearby cemetery; many cars followed in the motorcade behind the hearse as it somberly took Javier's mortal remains to his final resting place. And there in the cemetery, and as I recited the final prayers, those gathered huddled together and clutched each other tightly as together they shared the intensity of their grief. This was a "normal" funeral.

Almost overnight, the "normalcy" of funerals, and church services in general, changed for all of us. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just a couple of days after +Javier's funeral, our state and local governments issued strict and unprecedented health guidelines; phrases like "social-distancing," "stay at home," and "shelter in place," concepts especially alien to church people, suddenly became "the norm." Many were already suggesting the use of facial masks, and it was mandated by the government that "social gatherings" be limited to less than ten people. In the blink of an eye, we were no longer able to have "normal" funerals as I had celebrated for +Javier just a few days earlier.

Yet phone calls from grieving families, and from the funeral directors who serve them did not stop, and the volume of calls even seemed to increase. We were going to have a lot of funerals. Very early in this crisis I consulted with the other friar-priests, the religious sister and the deacons with whom I work, and we decided that it was best for just about everyone to observe the "shelter-in-place" guidance as much as possible. Far more than for me personally, their senior ages, and each of their unique health issues would possibly put them at a greater risk for contracting the dreadful virus. They really needed to "shelter in place" so I volunteered to cover all funerals within the Pastorate for as long as necessary.

As I was starting to become accustomed to the new COVID-19 era way of conducting funerals, I began to learn that some of my own friends and acquaintances had also been infected. Most of them survived, but a few did not. And everyone had to deal with new and awkward funeral restrictions. This affected everyone: it made no difference if someone died because of complications due to COVID-19 or if they had passed-away from completely natural and "ordinary" causes. Now, no one would be able to receive the proper funeral respects usually afforded to the dead. These realities have heavily impacted my own emotions as I have proceeded to celebrate quite a few "COVID-19 season" funerals!

How strange it is to visit nearly completely empty funeral homes where the few who gather are required to maintain "social distances," and are not allowed to shake hands and/or to give sympathetic hugs to those who mourn. How strange it is when there are no "in person" opportunities to console grieving children, grandchildren, other family members, loved ones, and friends of the deceased. How strange it is to be a part of "live-streamed" funerals knowing most who are "attending" are those watching from at great distances where they need to remain "safe." How strange it is for me, and even outside of my wildest imaginations, to wear face masks while praying at grave sides! How strange it is when only a few can be present for those graveside prayers, and where sadly we need to say these orations practically shouted from afar.

But I live in hope! When life returns to some semblance of normalcy, we will be able to honour these beloved dead with memorial Masses in our churches. When that day comes, and as not too long ago I had done for +Javier and his family, we will be able to show these dearly departed the "normal" and proper respects they rightfully deserve, and for which their families and friends surely long.

In your kindness, and in these COVID-19 days, please pray for the repose of our recently deceased sisters and brothers +Javier (age 5), +Constance (age 94), +Marion (age 92), +Jose "Pepe" (age 50), +Elmer (age 88), +Margaret Mary (age 99), +Freddy (age 47), +Daniel (age 85), +Santo (age 92), +Lawrence (age 79), +Maria (age 55), +Patricia (age 74), +Salvatore (age 85), +Josephine (age 93), and +Antoinette (age 101). Please pray also for the consolation of their more than usually distraught families during these difficult days!

Friar Timothy P Dore, OFM Conv., Pastor and Franciscan Friar

Fr Timothy wrote on Facebook recently:

Timothy Patrick Dore is feeling sad in Baltimore, Maryland with Marsha Wight Wise.

April 22 at 10:13 PM ·
Never in my wildest imaginations could I have ever thought I'd be wearing a face mask while praying at a grave-side. May God help and save us!

Timothy Patrick Dore is feeling sad at Parkwood Cemetery & Mausoleum.
April 23 at 12:42 PM · Parkville, MD, United States ·
Today's I presided at another "socially-distant" and heartbreaking grave-side funeral service. This one was for long time St. Michael the Archangel parishioner, +Josephine "Josie" Mary Prosser, who was 93 years old at the time of her death.

+Josie's family expressed great sadness because during these times they could not take her back to her beloved parish church for a proper funeral. However, and hopefully sometime soon, when life returns to some semblance of normalcy we will be able to honor her with a memorial Mass at church. When that day comes, her children and their spouses, along with Josie's grandchildren and other family members will be able to show her the respect she rightfully deserves.

In your kindness, please pray for the repose of the soul of +Josephine, and for the consolation of her family and friends.

May she rest in peace!

You can find +Josie's obituary at the following site:…/nottingham-md/josephine-p…

Visit Fr Timothy's Facebook page here:

Tags: Funeral, Coronavirus, Covid-19, Friar Timothy P Dore, Franciscan, Fr Timothy Dore

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