By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Eileen D’Amico watched her father’s burial from a distance, even though she was told she couldn’t, even as pedestrians walked by his grave, even as kids threw frisbees. St. Mary’s Cemetery in Lawrenceville has barred mourners from attending the burials of their loved ones, but has not, however, closed its gates to the public.
D’Amico’s family-friend died two days after her father. He, too, was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery. His family stood in the adjacent Allegheny Cemetery and watched their father’s burial through the fence, according to D’Amico.
“The worst part is the Catholic Church wouldn’t send a priest, even to the burial.They dropped the ball when people needed them the most. My father was so Catholic, he went to church every day, and he was buried without a priest there. Everybody and their mother is walking their bikes and walking their dogs, but we, who should have been there, weren’t allowed,” said D’Amico.
In Pittsburgh, cemeteries often double as public parks, and at a time where families aren’t allowed to do much else, there’s been an increase in outdoor activity. And while the Catholic cemeteries have remained open to the public, a March 28 letter Bishop Zubik wrote to clergy states, “ …cemeteries have already indicated the prohibition of even a small number of people gathering for burial.” The Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Diocese of Pittsburgh issued an update March 30 that stated in part, “Families are welcome to visit the cemetery after the burial has been completed to pay their respects.”
In an email to Pittsburgh Current, Mike Sinnott—of the Pittsburgh Diocese’s Catholic Cemeteries Association, whose purview includes St. Mary’s Cemetery where D’Amico’s father was buried—wrote:
“The decision to switch from limited attendance of 10 or less people to direct burials was a very difficult, but necessary one. For a few weeks we tried to accommodate the smaller funeral groups but that did not work as the vast majority of the groups were still exceeding the limit. Our workers interact with many funerals every week, potentially exposing themselves with each one and all of the attendees. In order for us to continue fulfilling our mission, it is imperative that they remain healthy and safe during these very serious and contagious times with COVID-19.”
The Washington Post reported April 8th that the Chicago coronavirus outbreak was traced to a funeral gathering where one individual infected 16 people between the ages of 5 and 86. Three of those infected died.
Across Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, funeral homes, cemeteries, churches and mourners are adjusting to how COVID-19 social-distancing measures are impacting funerals, burial traditions, grief, and anxiety. Without a state or federal mandate on how services or burials should be conducted, businesses are left to make their own decision, which leaves Corporate, private and parish cemeteries permitting different gatherings or not permitting gatherings at all.
Essential employees like funeral directors, undertakers, vaulters, grave diggers, or religious leaders also do not have specific mandates issued from the state or federal government.
On March 19, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that all but “life-sustaining” businesses in Pennsylvania must shut down immediately. Funeral homes across the state of Pennsylvania are not impacted by the order and continue physical operations. Also on March 19, The Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association (PFDA) released a memo that suggested funeral homes consider limiting their services and delaying public memorials. No official mandate has been issued to funeral homes from the PFDA.
On March 29, President Trump extended his “15 Days to Slow the Spread” guidance to April 30 which recommended no public gathering of more than 10 people.
“We’re the forgotten frontline employees”
Natalie Jackson, a funeral director at Warchol Funeral home in Bridgeville enters nursing homes, hospitals and private residences on a weekly basis. She is often one of the first people to walk in the door after a death. She must also wear a mask and gloves on a daily basis. She must enter rooms where grieving family members are tightly packed and mourning. She must take the body and embalm it, then prepare a service for no more than ten people.
And then, at night, she goes home to her partner and children, and decontaminates. She hand-washes and hopes that she hasn’t contracted COVID-19.
“We’re the forgotten frontline employees,” Jackson said, “No one thinks they have a family and kids and they can get sick.”
In Pennsylvania, funeral directors are required to promptly prepare and bury the deceased within 10 days. This “10-day rule” was extended to 30 days by the Pennsylvania State Department on March 30th. Jackson worries that keeping bodies for later burial or cremation will further stress a system during the pandemic. If folks are waiting to bury their dead, her funeral home could reach capacity–then what?
“Say we have 35 calls,” she said, “I don’t have enough room for 35 people.”
Frank Perman, funeral director of Perman Funeral Home in Shaler Township says that he has to assume that everyone he comes into contact with has been exposed to “some sort of pathogen.”
“We are the back-end of first responders,” Perman said, echoing Jackson. But, when asked if he feels he is at risk he said, “The answer is no. I’ve been through the AIDS epidemic, strains of tuberculosis, hepatitis, the flu.”
Businesses like Jackson’s and Perman’s have been implementing changes to services to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protocols and guidelines, which includes limiting services to 10 people or less. Mourners must stay six feet apart. If someone feels sick, they are told not to attend the service.
Perman has removed all cushioned or “soft” furniture from his building, replacing them with folding chairs which are easier to wipe down and disinfect. Mourners are not permitted to touch the deceased, not for fear of contracting COVID-19 from the body, but because the clothing, coffin, or other surfaces could become contaminated by those attending the service.
“But if a widow wants to hug her husband and we’re about to close the casket, yes, we’re going to allow it,” said Perman.
Jackson expressed frustrations with no set and clear mandates or guidelines from the PFDA. “The CDC has more information for funeral directors than we do,” Jackson said.
“People wanted to send food and I was like why? There’s no one here except me”
Jackson said her biggest fear when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic is that families will not be able to grieve. She said that traditions cannot be upheld, families cannot travel, there won’t be closure for many mourners for months.
“It’s going to come out later,” Jackson said.
D’Amico described feeling isolated, both in the days leading up to and the days following her father’s death.
“We entered him into hospice care at our house…but I am stuck in the house. No one can come here. I can’t leave. And I am watching my Dad die a slow death. In normal times, I would have had a million people around me. People wanted to send food and I was like why? There’s no one here except me,” D’Amico said,
“I just felt that he was so robbed of his funeral because he was so well-known.”
Perman mentioned that floral shops are non-essential businesses, so families cannot receive flowers. He suggested that family and friends who want to support grieving families donate to food banks or local organizations that need support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Isn’t it interesting, though, that stuff is no longer important?” asked Perman.
Ellen Schnieder’s mother passed away March 27th and the family did not hold a service and did not attend the burial.
“We decided it wasn’t worth it,” she said, “People would have to wait outside the door of the funeral home. The cemetery called it ‘drop-off service only’ How nice is that?”
Schneider has not been able to be with her daughters since her mother’s passing. She also must handle her mother’s estate in the bank parking lot due to social-distancing restrictions. She isn’t permitted inside the building. Schneider said she and the bank employees stand in the lot holding umbrellas and clipboards.
“But the most difficult thing for me—I have three daughters—we have not been able to get together to mourn my mom. That’s the most painful thing,” she said.