Small numbers at shorter funeral services are now the order of the day

By Lincoln DePradine

Luann Jones

The outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has caused the death of more than 200,000 people worldwide, also is impacting the conduct of final funeral rites.

In Ontario, like in other cities and countries, services have been shortened and limits placed on the number of people allowed to attend funerals.

“We get directives daily from our regulatory body, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario,’’ said Luann Jones, owner of Scarborough-based Covenant Funeral Home. “There’s a strict directive that we have to follow and we must not fall short of that directive.’’

Jones, who is Canada’s first Black owner of a funeral home, made the comments during a recent live online seminar on COVID-19 deaths and bereavement.

Luann Jones

The seminar was organized by the Canadian Caribbean Disaster Relief Action (CCaDiRA), an umbrella group whose main objective is coordinating “disaster preparedness, relief, emergency and response activities between the Caribbean Diaspora in Canada and the Caribbean region’’.

CCaDiRA, which is chaired by Grenadian Unison Joseph, plans on continuing the live series with topics dealing with issues such as mental health and financial security in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Covenant Funeral Home catered to funerals  with more than 300 mourners. They included services for Caribbean nationals, who “like to celebrate loved ones by having big, elaborate home-going services’’, said Jones. “Unfortunately, during this pandemic, that’s no longer possible’’.

Jones said new government regulations, issued in response to COVID-19, limit the number of people participating in a visitation and funeral to a maximum of ten, including the clergyman or woman and the pallbearers.

The “same maximum number” also applies to graveside services at cemeteries, with reminders to observe physical distancing guidelines and recommendations against handshaking and hugging.

Initially, it was “very, very hard’’ for grieving family members to accept the changes, said Jones.

However, people now are “understanding the severity of the COVID disease and the contagion itself. They’re being mindful and understanding that, although they would wish to be there to support the family during their time of grief, that the celebration would have to take place at a later time’’, she added.

According to Jones, services now have been condensed and are being conducted on a “smaller scale’’, with 30 minutes for visitation and service, and another half-hour for the graveside ceremony.

“We are doing immediate services now and then having celebrations of life at a later time,’’ said Jones, the daughter of Guyanese parents.

“Gone, temporarily, are the tributes, the hymns, the eulogies. We may sing a couple hymns or a couple choruses. But, in terms of our traditional two-to-three-hour services, it’s literally down to an hour. One hour, from start to finish.’’

At some cemeteries, mourners are not allowed to be at the graveside for the lowering of the casket into the grave, said Jones. They are asked to observe from inside their vehicles at a distance; or, they would leave and return later.

On such occasion, Covenant Funeral Home will videotape the burial for the family, said Jones, who studied at Humber College in Toronto and obtained her funeral director’s licence in 1999.

“We try and make things as personal as possible for families. And even before the pandemic, we were videotaping services for families via Facebook,’’ Jones said.

In another change forced by the virus, representatives of funeral agencies no longer are permitted to enter hospitals and other institutions to retrieve bodies.

Jones said the repatriation of bodies from Canada to other countries, which requires certain documentation, also has been affected by airport and border closures

“At this time,’’ said Jones, “we can’t grant that wish because there is no way of getting through the borders.”

The COVID-19 situation “has caused many people to reflect’’, on the way funeral plans are made, she said.

An in-person trip to Covenant Funeral Home requires visitors to wear masks and gloves “for the protection of everyone’’, Jones explained.

However, she’s been encouraging people to make [funeral] arrangements  by telephone and to make payments  electronically.

“We’re minimizing the contact with the family. In the event the family wishes to come to the funeral home to make arrangements, we’re allowing two people maximum to come in to finalize those arrangements,’’ said Jones.

“I treat people the way that I would want myself and my own family members to be treated. We look after all the stressful details. It’s only up to the family to come in and just deal with their grief.’’

The Coronavirus is responsible for the death of more than 2,600 Canadians, with some 900 in Ontario. The Ontario number includes about 300 in the City of Toronto.

CCaDiRA had scheduled an official launch for March 21 last. However, the COVID-19 pandemic compelled organizers to cancel the event.