Coping with the death of a loved one is difficult under any circumstances for family members faced not only with grief but organizing a funeral, say diocesan clergy and funeral directors.

But the effects of COVID-19 have added additional layers of pain and distress for faithful across the Trenton Diocese who have suffered losses since the pandemic surfaced here in March, they said.

With churches closed, traditional rites for the most part unavailable, closed coffins, and no hugs, “it’s a very emotional time” for many people said Deacon David O’Connor, diocesan director of cemeteries.

“The wake service and the funeral Mass are gone according to the executive order of the state. Most of the (church) buildings are locked,” said Deacon O’Connor, who manages and oversees 11 diocesan cemeteries throughout Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties.

He noted that as per Bishop David M. O’Connell’s directives, the Diocese has been in full compliance with the executive order which applies in all deaths, since it was first issued. This includes new and more stringent additions to the regulation issued April 22.

While social distancing is necessary to bring the virus under control, Deacon O’Connor acknowledged that “it’s hard for people to understand. When a loved one dies, especially (in this time of) COVID-19, there’s such a feeling of loss.”

When a family member dies, direct communication with the parish and the funeral home has long been a mainstay in assisting the bereaved through their immediate grief.

Deacon O’Connor and several priests of the Diocese spoke of the importance of the funeral rites, how they convey belief in eternal life and the resurrection of the body on the last day.

Every component, from reception of the body to interment, reflects those fundamental beliefs.

With the comforting components of large gatherings at wakes, liturgies and even at graveside now not permitted, Deacon O’Connor, who has performed 24 committal services in recent days, said it can be very hard for the family.

With attendance at the committal limited to 10 people or less, including family, clergy and funeral staff, Deacon O’Connor recalled one recent service in which some of the bereaved drove into the cemetery and parked as close to the gravesite as possible. Because of the regulations, they had to remain in their cars.

“I got as close to them as I could. I stood next to the (casket) of the decedent as they sat in their cars crying,” he said.

Intent on making the service meaningful for the loved ones amid the constraints, Deacon O’Connor sang hymns at the gravesite, offered prayers, words of condolence and a reflection on their beloved deceased.

“When something like that is over,” he said, “you can do nothing but go home and pray.”

The commitment to offer a compassionate presence to families in grief also extends to the day-to-day operations of the cemeteries, Deacon O’Connor said. Social distancing is in place for staff and vendors, and extra precautions are taken to ensure that the facilities are safe for visitors.

He explained that the diocesan cemeteries are open, but the buildings are closed.  Visitors are able to come without restriction as long as they observe social distancing and are not part of a committal service.  He said, “We continue to employ sanitation procedures three times a day on all often-touched surfaces throughout the cemeteries.” 

Test of Faith

The rules and regulations brought about by COVID-19 have inspired clergy, including Divine Word Father Pedro Bou, pastor of St. Mary of the Lake and St. Anthony Claret Parishes, both Lakewood, and Father Guilherme Andrino, parochial vicar, to do the best they can under the circumstances.

“Changing our way of burials and committals has been wrenching,” said Father Bou. “With social distancing rules, the close sense of support we were able to offer evaporated. This is just the opposite, it’s rough. In funerals, feelings can be hurt, families are very sensitive.

“But we know it’s part of being Christian to love him and follow him in good times and bad,” he said. “We are sticking together, showing we are Church and the Church is trying to do the best it can to protect everyone. It is working well in our place. I refer to it as a test of faith.

“Everything is being done with dignity and care, and I think everything is working well,” Father Bou said. He, Father Andrino and Father Marian Kokorzycki are sharing the services and consoling the diverse congregation which includes large Latino and Polish communities.

Father Andrino shared the heartrending experience of being called by members of a large Hispanic family who asked him to conduct their patriarch’s burial. “I explained that it would be short and that not everyone could be there.

“For me, wearing a mask and gloves and everyone wearing masks and gloves, it was a strange situation. I explained to them that [when the coronavirus subsides] they could have a memorial Mass, but their expectation had been to have a service. That’s what hurts,” Father Andrino said.

In the absence of a funeral Mass and traditional burial ceremonies, some priests are offering private Masses for their parishioners who have died. Deacon O’Connor can attest that “this has meant a great deal to people; it’s been very much appreciated.”

Focus on Compassion

Msgr. Joseph Roldan, rector of Trenton’s St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, has been doing his best to mitigate some of the sorrow that members of his flock feel when so few family members can attend.

“I have noticed that there has been livestreaming so that people can participate that way,” Msgr. Roldan said. “It certainly is very stressful for them. What I’ve been doing to try to help is placing one of our liturgical books in the coffin with them or setting one on top of the coffin” so the families know their loved one is being buried with dignity and care, he said.

The desire for such care prompted a parishioner to bring his mother to Trenton for burial, Msgr. Roldan said. “His mother died in New York and he thought there would be more respect for her here. It was just him and his sister at the burial but he felt a connection with the parish which he wouldn’t have felt in New York.

“Having a priest go to the gravesite as a sign of support was very important,” Msgr. Roldan shared.

Virtual technology is also being widely used to support grieving families who belong to St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, said its rector, Msgr. Sam Sirianni. “It’s very hard to keep traditions and customs in place when you are social distancing, and those traditions are very important,” said Msgr. Sirianni, who has offered three committal services that were video-conferenced. “People who couldn’t be there physically were ‘there’ because of technology.”

Deacon O’Connor, Msgr. Sirianni and others have credited the efforts put forth by funeral directors. 

Michael Givnish who owns funeral homes in Marlton, Cinnaminson and Maple Shade with his brother, Tom, observed on behalf of the whole funeral process, “It’s got us rethinking our roles as family, as clergy, as funeral directors. It’s opened our minds. It’s got us looking to find new ways to help.”