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Funerals and COVID-19: Saying goodbye, 10 people at a time

About 10 people, the maximum recommend size of a gathering in the age of the coronavirus, attended a funeral at Miramar National Cemetery, March 18, 2020, in San Diego.

HOWARD LIPIN/TNS

By JOHN WILKENS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: March 19, 2020

Read more coronavirus coverage from Stars and Stripes.

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — With a steady rain falling Wednesday morning at Miramar National Cemetery, fewer than a dozen people arrived for an outdoor funeral. Weather wasn't the only deterrent.

Attendance was limited by the coronavirus pandemic, too.

At Miramar, Fort Rosecrans and America's other 140 national cemeteries — the final resting places for military veterans and their spouses — grieving families are being asked to invite no more than 10 mourners. Solace in numbers is giving way to social distancing amid an expanding effort to control the virus' spread.

Throughout San Diego County, where on an average day about 60 people die from various causes, mortuaries are also making adjustments. They're shortening or eliminating visitations, live-streaming services so people can watch from home, and asking those at funerals not to hug or kiss.

"It's hard for everybody," said Kevin Weaver, the general manager at Anderson-Ragsdale Mortuary in San Diego. "The instinct during times of loss is to reach out and comfort each other, and now we're not supposed to do that."

Not everyone has received the message. At the Miramar service Wednesday morning, attendees hugged and held hands as the casket was moved from a hearse parked beside the cemetery office to a horse-drawn wagon, which took it to an outdoor shelter for the funeral. Several hugged again when the service was over.

Thirty minutes later, at another Miramar funeral, about 30 people attended and crowded shoulder-to-shoulder under the shelter roof to get out of the rain.

The potential danger of close contact during funerals was demonstrated earlier this week in Georgia, where a cluster of suspected cases, including one death, has been linked by health officials to two heavily attended church memorial services in Dougherty County.

"Our main job has always been the public's health and safety, and now we're all learning to take extra precautions," said Kori Truesdale, whose family runs Featheringill Mortuary in San Diego.

Now they are accepting "e-signatures" on sales documents so customers don't have to come to the office. They're making arrangements to begin live-streaming their funerals.

Some already have that option in place. To keep people from attending Friday's 11 a.m. funeral for San Diego Auxiliary Bishop Gilberto Chavez, the location of the service has not been publicly announced. Mourners are instead being encouraged to watch online at SDCatholic.org.

Some families are opting to delay funerals (easier to do with cremation than burial) or split their mourning: interment now, and a bigger memorial service later, when it's considered safe again.

"If only they could tell you when that will be," sighed Bob Vogt, whose father, Bill, died recently in La Jolla at age 107.

The family has decided to go ahead with a burial at Miramar later this month for the retired Navy intelligence officer. The crowd limits might still be in place, but Vogt said it will be OK if only 10 people are allowed to attend.

"My dad was a modest guy, and although he was proud of his service, proud of his country, he wouldn't want a big fuss anyway," Vogt said. "What he would want is a party, and we'll give him that after all this has settled down and people can travel and be together again."

Delaying isn't always an option, though. Weaver said one customer asked to keep her mother's body at the mortuary for 90 days in hopes that the virus would be under control by then. That's doable, he told her, "but I won't be able to guarantee you a service with an open casket."

She went another route, sending the body to Nebraska for a small graveside service in a family plot at a cemetery.

Chris Robinson, who operates funeral homes in South Carolina and is a board member of the National Funeral Directors Association, said his family has been in the business since 1875 and weathered many challenges. But nothing like this.

As in San Diego, social distancing is the primary concern, he said. At his facilities, they've been metering the attendance at visitations, letting in only 10 at a time. There are signs posted urging people not to embrace. The guest book is handled by just one person, wearing gloves, who writes down each visitor's name instead of passing the pen around.

"For us, the new norm is totally different," he said. "But look at the world. Everything is different."

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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