When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in 2020, much of the world ground to a halt. Many industries buckled under the pressure of slowing economies — except for the business of death. In Quebec, funeral homes were busier than ever. The province has seen nearly half of all COVID-19 deaths in Canada and was named the hardest hit region during the first wave.
“[In] the beginning, it was just survival,” says Bridget Fetterly, president of Montreal-based Kane and Fetterly Funeral Homes, of the deluge of calls she received. “It was more like order-taking.”
Her funeral homes were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to answer calls to pick up a deceased person’s body. As Fetterly puts it, “you just can’t wait until opening hours to make that call.” New health measures added to the sense of urgency. Embalming is forbidden, as is washing or disinfecting the body.
Quebec limited funeral gatherings of 25 people in red zone regions, though early on in the pandemic, there were reports of some cemeteries limiting mourners to just two people. Currently, new COVID cases are dropping and the entire province is in the green zone. Funeral ceremonies with an audience of up to 250 people are now permitted provided they remain seated; indoor gatherings that involve offering condolences, or viewing the body or ashes, can see up to 50 people get together.
Restrictions are slowly being lifted. However, many individuals are still struggling, whether it’s those grappling with a personal loss, or those trying to guide them through the rituals of saying good-bye.
Loss, grief and technology
For Sarah-Anne Leblanc, a Quebec-based funeral director and embalmer, video calls became an important part of the funeral planning process — much to the dismay of families, as well as the employees of the funeral home. And while virtual meetings offered a way to mourn at a time when in-person meetings were not allowed, the use of technology also created space between families and funeral home employees — a disconnect that many in the funeral business are not used to.
“How do you be there for families, when you can’t actually be there?” says Leblanc. “When you can’t meet face-to-face, you don’t feel like you are doing your job properly.”
Plus, the long wait times to consult with a funeral director frustrated families, she says. But there was just too much death to keep up with.
“It really got to us,” says Leblanc. “There were just some points where my colleagues were like, ‘How many times have you cried today? Only two? That’s good.’”
Éric Laberge, a senior official at Quebec’s Groupe Yves Légaré, has also seen the strain of COVID-19 restrictions on clients.
“We seem like the bad guys,” he says. “But we have to be able to get through this pandemic and respect the sanitary measures.”
Waiting to say goodbye
Only closed caskets and cremation are allowed for those who died from COVID-19. What Fetterly finds most difficult is when families and loved ones are unable to see the deceased in a state of rest.
There’s a certain closure that comes with being able to see a loved one, she says. And it’s that opportunity to connect to grief by seeing death that helps the bereaved come to terms with their loss.
Not seeing the body “leaves you with an emptiness,” says Fetterly. “I think emotionally, that must be really, really tough [for loved ones] because not only were they not able to be with them in their last days, but you can’t even confirm the death in your head by seeing [their body].”
Research points to an association between not being able to say goodbye to a dying loved one and complicated grief, which is a chronic form of grief where a person might alienate themselves from others and have extreme difficulty accepting a death.
Andrea Warnick is a registered nurse, psychotherapist and thanatologist, an expert in the study of death. She recommends finding ways to maintain connections to the deceased through ritual, whether it’s a Zoom-based funeral or even something smaller and more personal.
“Do some sort of ceremony. I’ve had people lay out their dad’s hockey jersey in the living room, pour his favourite beer and play his favourite music. Just do something.”
Meanwhile, Leblanc says she’s looking forward to a time when she can go back to helping families through the grieving process.
“I want people to have the tools that they need to mourn properly,” she says.