Even in the midst of a pandemic, life — and death — go on. COVID-19 has killed about two dozen people in Clark County, but hundreds of people die each month of other causes. Now their families must attend to the painful details of making arrangements and saying a final goodbye without the solace of gathering.
Kathy Markham found herself in that situation. Her 81-year-old mother, Velda Marie Bridger, died in her sleep at her Vancouver home on April 6. Bridger suffered from heart disease and diabetes, but refused to move to assisted living — too much money, she said. Her family joked that to the end, Bridger adhered to the lyrics of a favorite Frank Sinatra song:
“She did it her way,” Markham said.
But when it came to Bridger’s service, that wasn’t possible. Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 stay-at-home order to curb the pandemic lets funeral homes continue to operate, but the ban on gatherings still applies. Funeral directors are trying their best to approximate their pre-pandemic services by using technologies like livestreaming, but they and their clients know it’s not the same.
“This is the worst time for anybody. Our brains are used to the closure of some kind of service,” Markham said. “We’re all so used to gathering with family. You get to talk about the stories — that’s what happens at a funeral. We can’t have that. The stories from when Mom was little — I’m not going to get that.”
Markham’s daughter really wanted one last chance to see her grandmother, so Evergreen Memorial Gardens offered its first drive-thru viewing. Mourners stayed in their cars and passed slowly by Bridger’s casket on April 25.
“It goes against our very core to have to discourage gathering. We’re always encouraging it because we know the importance of it,” said Brad Carlson, owner of Evergreen Memorial Gardens. “When a family says, ‘He didn’t want any service,’ we say in a nice way, ‘This isn’t about him right now. This is about you who are left behind. What is it that you need to do?’”
Evergreen Memorial Gardens handles about 900 deaths annually, Carlson estimates. About 3,600 people died in Clark County in 2018, the most recent full-year data available.
“We have handled and brought into our care some who have died from the virus, but there’s not been a big influx,” Carlson said. “Unlike those poor people in New York City.”
Bodies there have piled up so fast funeral homes can’t keep pace. Mourners’ urge to gather caused an uproar last week when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio oversaw police dispersal of a crowd at a rabbi’s funeral in Brooklyn.
In Vancouver, Evergreen Memorial Gardens’ doors are locked but staff still meet with clients by appointment. They have to keep their distance, which goes against their instincts. Most clients are opting to handle arrangements by phone, email, fax or online meetings, Carlson said.
“It is a high-touch business. I call it a hearts-and-flowers business. We can’t do that now,” Carlson said.
Clients often want to put everything on hold, but bodies must be buried or cremated in a timely way.
“We encourage people to continue on with the process, and at a later time, to gather as a big group for a memorial service at a church or fraternal order,” Carlson said. “If this goes on for months, that will make a difference in terms of what they will do as time goes on and we get further away from the death.”
It can be agonizing for the bereaved not to be able to mark deaths the way they’d like, and sometimes they lash out at funeral directors, said Landis Epp. Now semi-retired, he has worked as a trauma chaplain for 35 years, informing loved ones of deaths. Bridger’s service was the third he has officiated since the pandemic shutdowns. We often hear about first responders; Epp calls funeral directors “last responders.”
“The funeral directors have been overlooked in this pandemic,” he said. “Grieving is an interesting study. It isn’t the service that ends grief. It’s a long process. Our funeral practices help to facilitate grief. It does something psychological to us when we honor someone who has died.”
He remarked that at age 75, he finds himself amazed by the use of livestreaming. Only immediate family can attend a graveside service like the one he officiated for Bridger, but others were able to watch remotely.
“I’m so grateful for the technology we have that mitigates this somewhat,” Epp said. “Knowing that someone cared about them and their loss, it helps with the grieving process.”
Markham said even though her mother’s services were vastly different from those held for her father a couple of years ago, they went well. She’s grateful Evergreen Memorial Services offered the drive-thru viewing.
“We are so thankful we were able to do that so we could have closure,” Markham said.
Later, when all this is over, family will gather and invite Epp, too, so they can share stories about her mother, Markham said. “We’ll meet at the cemetery and have a little potluck. At least that way she hasn’t been forgotten.”