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Barbara Kemmis

Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, prepares to participate in her grandmother’s virtual memorial service.

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The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Changing The Way We Mourn Loved Ones

Lately, one topic has taken over Barbara Kemmis’ calls.

As the executive director of the Cremation Association of North America for the past eight years, she organizes weekly conference calls with funeral directors and other industry professionals.

And the topic on everyone’s mind: the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are more than 3,000 members in the association and they all have safety and facility-based questions,” she said. “How do you disinfect a van? Should I wear a mask? How long should I self-isolate after picking up a body?”

Those questions are difficult to answer. Especially when recommendations aren’t clear.

“We’ve gotten clear guidance in Illinois from our elected officials, but in some parts of the country, it hasn’t been so clear,” Kemmis said.

Those in the industry are also concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus.

“We don’t know exactly how long the virus lives within a dead host. We’re assuming it could be quite a while,” Kemmis said. “However, it’s the living who cough and sneeze and touch things and pass on the virus. So we’re more afraid of the living and taking precautions to not pass on the virus ourselves or contracted from someone else.”

Read more: All of WBEZ’s coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Chicago and the region.

Last week, Kemmis’ work life and personal life collided. Her grandmother passed away in Iowa, and the family was spread across six states.

Even with her extensive knowledge of the funeral industry, Kemmis wasn’t prepared for handling grief and social distancing.

“You can put your grief on pause, but it doesn’t go away,” she said

Kemmis shared with morning news anchor Mary Dixon what to expect when a loved one dies in the age of coronavirus, and tips to make virtual funerals meaningful.

1. You don’t necessarily have to wait to hold a funeral

“We assumed it would be months before we could gather and really honor my grandmother, and it felt very lonely and disconnected,” Kemmis said. “That was a mistake.”

The funeral director suggested using photographs, a live video at the gravesite via YouTube and a video conference to create a virtual celebration of life that her family could attend from across the county.

“We use this technology in our daily lives and in our work lives, but we never thought of applying it to a memorial service,” Kemmis said. “I would encourage people to be creative and ask questions of the funeral homes and cemeteries.”

2. Appoint a point person and practice ahead of the service

Since the family was so spread out, a point person was tasked with organizing a video conference meeting. Kemmis added that she also took time to explain how video conferencing works to older relatives.

“[The point person] made it a point to talk to family members individually about their favorite memories with my grandmother,” Kemmis said. “We even had a practice run before the actual memorial services to make sure everything ran smoothly.”

3. Find ways to maintain a human connection

For Kemmis’ family, that meant finding a way to honor their grandmother’s love of gardening and flower arranging.

“Our family committed to either sending ourselves flowers or buying flowers from the supermarket,” Kemmis said. “We had flowers in our respective homes, and lit a candle at an appointed time. It was all done to create a shared experience, even though we are physically disconnected.”

Araceli Gómez-Aldana is WBEZ’s morning news producer. Follow her at @Araceli1010.

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