A few weeks ago, Jan Hall-Stinson died suddenly of a heart attack. But, that wasn’t the only goodbye friends couldn’t have.
She was a well-known potter at Shady Lea in North Kingstown and a longtime staff member of Crossroads Rhode Island, director of housing for Kingstown Crossings, and a vibrant advocate and active member of the Rhode Island social services community.
Her work and her passions brought her to intersections with many people across the state and in the South County area. She touched the hearts and the souls of people she met, bringing a smile, a laugh and a helping hand with whatever the need was, her family recalled.
However, friends and some family members could not say a final goodbye at the funeral home, her family decided, because of the possibility a mourner might have the coronavirus and spread it to another.
Jan Hall-Stinson’s family became one of a growing number of people who cannot have the kind of visitation wake where many friends and extended relatives offer comfort, solace and simply a sense of community at a heart-wrenching time.
“It’s so sad to sit there and I used to say to the families my whole life ‘What can I do for you? Anything you want?’ Now I have to tell them what they can do,” said David Nardolillo, co-owner of Nardolillo Funeral Home in Narragansett.
The reality of death’s door now is death – and illness or infection – for themselves or a loved one from coronavirus. For those grieving and funeral homes trying to help them find work-arounds, there are limits on how much help can be offered as well as novel approaches that challenge funeral care’s decades of tradition.
“And you know, I’m looking at them at the worst time in their life. To go through this? It’s unbelievable,” said Nardolillo, a director for 40 years and the third generation to run his family-owned funeral service started in 1906.
The Coronavirus has upended the funeral business, traditions and customs in ways this director and others said they have never seen in their years of serving families.
One Family’s Choices
Glenn Stinson, awash in grief over the sudden loss of his wife, faced the immediate choice of how goodbyes would be said to his wife in this eclipse of normalcy and overshadowed by the Coronavirus’s many curtailing restrictions.
“The virus concerns were absolutely central to our thinking about Jan’s memorial, and finding a meaningful path forward. We (the family) obviously wanted to be able to bring both some closure for the family and also reach out to Jan’s many friends and colleagues and provide a time and place that we could all share our grief, memories, reflections and stories,” he explained.
Having the comfort of family and friends was also important as well as them feeling safe in the company of others — both posing a dilemma in a virus-filled world. All of this occurred on March 10, before the mandates for any social-distancing for staying away from others and avoiding crowds of any size.
“As a family, we decided early on, before enforced business closures, that, in this moment, we would not be able to do what we hoped,” he said, adding, “We also heard from family and friends who expressed reluctance or inability to travel, and this influenced out thinking as well.”
In addition, in the midst of constantly changing conditions, the family decided to forego the traditional calling hours completely while also planning a broader memorial event with Crossroads Rhode Island for some time later in the summer, he said.
“Some time ago, Jan and I decided on cremation for ourselves, and that decision has given us the gift of a little bit of time, a precious commodity in these circumstances, to sort this out, for which I am extremely grateful,” Stinson said.
David Nardolillo said decisions like Stinson’s are coming up every day now.
“It’s difficult for everyone, but it’s really, really hard for the families. That’s who I feel bad for. You sit there and just look at their faces, you see their anguish and the sorrow, and then they say, ‘My father knew a lot of people. What are we going to do?,’” he said about the top question bereaved families are asking.
Andrew J. Correia, funeral director at Cranston-Murphy Funeral Home in North Kingstown, commented, “We have to limit the funerals to the privacy of the family. Things are changing every day and I’m taking it one day at a time and trying to stay on top of what’s next.”
The social distancing orders from state and federal officials have fluctuated and funeral directors are following either a 25-person maximum in the funeral home at one time or a newly discussed 10-person limit, which is also observed at some and in some churches and cemeteries.
However, this maximum number applies to more than that the total number of family and friends attending. It actually also includes all funeral home staff members inside the building, said the directors, and that poses even harsher limits on visitors.
So, the reality of the number allowed, they said, could be lower depending on how each funeral home does its staffing and counts people. Lines inside or outside the funeral home have disappeared with the requirement of six feet between each person for safe social distancing, the directors said.
“Because of all of this, I feel sad for families I’ve had who cannot have a large-full service to do their deceased family member justice,” said Correia.
Peter Storti, owner and funeral director at Avery-Storti Funeral Home in Wakefield, observed, “It’s tough for the family. They have to pick who can come in. That is very difficult on them. We have some very large families and some may have to divide between wake and funeral.”
Christopher Quinn, director at Fagan-Quinn Funeral Home in North Kingstown, sympathized, but said that with no real prevention of the coronavirus there is a need to enforce the count. It’s good for the families they serve, the staff needed to help them and the community at large, he added.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be that funeral home where all of a sudden you aren’t staying by the guidelines and now there’s a quarantine or somebody is sick,” he said. “It’s just a difficult call. It’s a sensitive situation. It’s a difficult time not only for the family, but all those who are experiencing the loss.”
One alternative that all four funeral homes are embracing is livestreaming online through their websites or social media, such as Facebook, the actual prayer and memorial service at the funeral home and, in some instances, a church or synagogue and cemetery.
“As far as comfort, it depends on the generation,” said Quinn. “If a friend or somebody passed away and I wasn’t able to attend, at least if I was able to livestream, I could be there essentially in spirit remotely, and to me that sounds acceptable.”
But he acknowledged there’s the challenge of an older generation wanting custom and tradition. “Recently I had an older individual in his 90s wanted to be there, he wasn’t interested in watching online after the fact,” Quinn noted.
Nardolillo said that his funeral home offers livestreaming, but like all the others, no strong desire for it has surfaced yet. He expects that if attendance limits continue on visitations or if the disease simply gets more contagious, the requests for it will increase.
All also acknowledged that livestreaming is more than simply a response to the virus. It is part of changes in the funeral traditions brought by expectations of a generation more comfortable with this video service.
It allows the collapse of distance between cities and states — even continents — to share in the grief of others and for a person’s own grieving process.
Several likened this change to the movement of wakes outside the personal home or home of a family member of the deceased. Those were most common until a new approach in the 20th Century brought both embalming and preparation as well as visitation and service in a separate place, they said.
Livestreaming is only for the actual services during which speakers talk about and pray for the deceased. Wakes and viewing of the body remain private for the family, the directors said.
During this time on attendance limits, the Rev. Marcel Taillon of St. Thomas More and St. Veronica Chapel, both in Narragansett, has offered his high-tech livestream system and recording in St. Veronica’s for funeral directors needing an off-site location for families to view services.
“If there’s a large family and they can’t go, having many children and grandchildren, we offered to them the free use for any faith,” he said. Taillon also makes available on the church’s website recordings of Catholic funerals in his church, in addition to Masses and other programs.
“It allows people can go back in different stages of grief and re-pray the Mass,” the priest said.
Nardolillo said, “Funerals are important. They help with grief, helps families feel better, learn about a deceased family member from the sharing of people who come to wakes and talk to them. However, this social distancing prevents that from happening.”
On the other hand, he and all the other directors said, they also need to protect themselves and their staffs.
“We’re a small company. I have to protect my staff. If we get sick, we’re closed,” said Peter Storti of Avery-Storti in Wakefield. Some others, which have multiple locations, are assigning specific directors to different locations so that a virus spread doesn’t knock out the entire business for two weeks or longer.
Correia of Cranston-Murphy Funeral Home in North Kingstown said his service provides a very meaningful ceremony within the guidelines of Centers for Disease Control, but these bring changes in expectations that families have.
Others said they, too, follow the CDC and National Funeral Directors Association recommendations.
Ultimately it comes down to public visitations and a limited number, the directors said. A very low limit could bring a decision about paying costs just for a handful of people at the funeral home.
“I could see, if it got that bad — and it might — that we could go directly to interment and have memorial services later, “ Nardolillo said.
Christopher Quinn of Fagan-Quinn, added, “As far as comfort for somebody who may want all the family and friends to attend, that’s going to have to be put on pause for now.”