Grief in a time of social distancing: Funeral homes adapt with graveside potlucks, picnics

Graveside potlucks and picnics and virtual services are new ways the funeral industry is adapting to allow people to mourn the death of loved ones during restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A recent funeral service at McCall Gardens had a maximum capacity of 45 mourners inside its chapel, but another 150 attended the service via Zoom, a video-conferencing software, on four large screens showing 50 faces at a time.

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The virtual mourners were able to watch a live stream of the service and those in the chapel were able to see friends and relatives from across Canada and the world on the screens, said Trevor McCall, president of the Saanich funeral home.

“A celebration of life is so important to the grieving process,” said McCall. “When people aren’t able to gather because of COVID, this provides people with a meaningful way to participate.”

McCall said the family-owned business started using the virtual connection in March as the pandemic took hold and restrictions on gatherings were imposed by the province. He now believes the virtual connection will continue well into the future. “I see this as a part of the funeral-services business long after COVID, for the whole funeral profession,” said McCall.

The service is also archived for mourners to view later on.

“COVID has made us adapt,” said McCall. “And we had to act quickly.”

He said many funeral arrangements over the past few months were made online and over the phone, but people are starting to come in person, since the offices are large enough to ensure social distancing.

At Royal Oak Burial Park, where large gatherings are also prohibited, executive director Crystabelle Fobler said interment services are also changing.

One family held a potluck gathering in the park and others are doing picnics or bringing acoustic guitars.

She said with limited space in the chapel, the burial park is offering outdoor areas, along with tents and tables and chairs to host special gatherings to send off their loved ones.

“We can’t offer chapel services at this time, so we are giving families options,” said Fobler. “Whether it’s alongside our picturesque fountain or in the midst of a large green space, we want to ensure that our guests continue to have a beautiful place to remember.”

Fobler said the park’s popular “So[u]lstice flags” will be offered for services. The white flags “symbolize loved ones who aren’t able to be here,” she said.

Fobler said several interments of cremated remains were delayed in March and April, and there was “a major uptick” in May, as it was difficult for some families to plan anything, travel or even gather in public spaces.

The burial park is open to the public with notices for safe social distancing and other protocols.

Fobler said visitations to the cemetery are up during the pandemic, noting there has been a sizable increase in queries into the location of graves. “I think people have been reconnecting with loved ones [during the pandemic],” she said.

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