[UPDATE: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee adjusts ban on funerals]

Funerals postponed. Open-casket viewings by the side of the road. Sitting shiva via Zoom. Cemeteries threatening to turn away families whose faith requires them to climb into the grave and personally lay their dead to rest.

Over the past two weeks, increasingly strict social-distancing rules — culminating in Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order on March 23 — have sown confusion and consternation among families, cemeteries, faith leaders and funeral directors over a fundamental question:

What to do with our departed loved ones in a new era of enforced isolation?

“The reality is, we still have people dying every day from other causes,” said Char Barrett, funeral director at  A Sacred Moment. “But my world is pretty much upside-down.”

On March 19, the state Department of Licensing (DOL) sent a strict memo to the state’s death-care providers, clarifying Inslee’s ban on funerals: “Funerals are not permitted at this time. … cemeteries should restrict interment services to ‘delivery only.’”

“Yes, that includes graveside services,” said Rob Goff, president of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association.

Advertising

Even just four or five people, who are kept 10 feet apart?

“Yes,” he said. “We have to abide by the law of the land.”

For some, that causes intimate family heartbreak. Leonid Torchilo, whose mother died March 20 after a stroke, knew he couldn’t give her the funeral she would have wanted at the Light of Hope Ukrainian church in Marysville. It had closed.

Instead, he hoped the immediate family could say goodbye during her burial at Woodlawn Cemetery in Snohomish. But the cemetery, Torchilo said, told him nobody was allowed to come before or during the burial, per state rules — only afterward. Woodlawn Cemetery declined to comment.

So they had a “van viewing” — three cars of family, plus the van carrying Mrs. Torchilo’s casket, pulled off the road about a quarter-mile from the cemetery. With the van doors open, family members were allowed a few semi-private, roadside moments to say goodbye.

“It’s ridiculous,” Torchilo said. “It felt like we were doing something wrong, off in some parking area. I felt like an idiot.”

Advertising

For others, the funeral ban has become a source of communitywide distress.

“It’s a heated situation, period”

Zane K. Fitch Sr., left, founded Seattle’s Dayspring and Fitch Funeral Home in 1987, and his son W. Victor Fitch now works alongside him as president of the company. Dayspring and Fitch is the only Black-owned funeral home in Seattle. Victor has been helping Muslim families navigate the coronavirus-induced funeral ban over the last couple of weeks. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times, 2019)
Zane K. Fitch Sr., left, founded Seattle’s Dayspring and Fitch Funeral Home in 1987, and his son W. Victor Fitch now works alongside him as president of the company. Dayspring and Fitch is the only Black-owned funeral home in Seattle. Victor has been helping Muslim families navigate the coronavirus-induced funeral ban over the last couple of weeks. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times, 2019)

Victor Fitch has been in the funeral businesses for more than 20 years. Mohamed Sheikh Hassan has been a leader in the East African community for just as long. But a Tuesday burial required some of the most delicate negotiations of their tenures.

The morning after Inslee’s stay-at-home directive, Fitch — the president of Dayspring and Fitch Funeral Home — arrived at Woodlawn Cemetery to assist in the burial of a woman from the Somali Muslim community.

It was a tense scene.

Around 100 mourners had gathered, but the cemetery wanted them gone, in accordance with the DOL’s “delivery-only” guidelines. Fitch, who has worked with Seattle-area Somali families for many years, knew this would be tricky.

“Muslim funerals are a community event,” he explained later. “When someone passes away, whether you knew the person or not, you’re encouraged by your faith to attend, to help that person have more blessings.”

Fitch called the DOL, which regulates funeral homes and cemeteries, to tell them what was happening.

Advertising

They gave him two suggestions, he said: “Either reschedule the burial or … call the sheriff’s department.” Neither sounded practical. “Do we call the sheriff on our own family right now? You’re looking at a community that has been refugees, people we’ve been serving for two decades.”

DOL spokesperson Christine Anthony said the agency had received one phone call from a funeral director facing a large crowd who was “concerned about their personal safety and potentially being exposed to the virus.” Fitch disputes this version, saying he called for guidance, not concern for his personal safety.

Meanwhile, Hassan was also running interference. “It was really chaos at the cemetery,” he said. “The cemetery owner said: ‘I’m not going to allow you to put the body in the grave until all these people go.’ ”

But burials in that community, he explained, involve scores of people who gather to help: to pray with the family, take the casket from the van, then take the body from the casket and hand it to men who’ve climbed into the grave to lay the deceased in the soil, with the head pointing toward Mecca.

“There’s a lot of manpower that needs to be there,” Hassan said. “Allah has told us: ‘If any person who has the Muslim faith dies in a city, every Muslim in that city is required to make sure that person is buried properly.’ We have obligations as Muslims.”

Fitch, Hassan said, was an artful negotiator. He talked most of the crowd off cemetery property and the burial proceeded — though several drifted back onto the grounds to pray.

Advertising

“What can you do?” Fitch said. “You are ultimately talking about people who love someone and want to be there. You can’t fight that on the ground. … It’s a heated situation, period.”

Since Tuesday, Hassan said he and other community leaders have been in close contact about how to resolve the funerary tensions, and that Woodlawn Cemetery told another Muslim family it would only perform all-staff burials: no family.

Mohamed Sheikh Hassan is an East African community leader who has been working with people to navigate the “no funerals” rule, instituted to help stop the spread of COVID. Such public policy clashes with religious beliefs.  (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Mohamed Sheikh Hassan is an East African community leader who has been working with people to navigate the “no funerals” rule, instituted to help stop the spread of COVID. Such public policy clashes with religious beliefs. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Hassan wonders whether state officials talked to any imams or rabbis — some Jewish congregations also have very hands-on death-care practices — before announcing that “cemeteries should restrict interment services to ‘delivery only.’ ”

“We knew this would affect people deeply in many areas of their lives,” Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee, said. “Many stakeholders were involved; I don’t have a list.”

Postponed funerals, Faulk added, have affected his life, too. His father’s service was scheduled for April 4, in Alabama — but was canceled because of the pandemic.

Supporting the living

Coronavirus restrictions are changing the way we honor the dead — and forcing the living to get creative.

Advertising

Barrett, of A Sacred Moment, has been a local leader in the home-funeral movement and says that while churches and cemeteries are closed, some families are hosting small, private services at home, with or without the deceased present.

One Pagan family she recently worked with held a small home funeral, streaming a portion of the ceremony on Zoom.

“We’re trying to get the word out to people: There’s another alternative here,” Barrett said. “Do it yourselves in your own home and at least have that goodbye — but be smart about it. You still need to keep that 6-foot social distance.”

Nora Menkin, executive director of the People’s Memorial Association and The Co-op Funeral Home, who also belongs to a Reform Jewish synagogue in West Seattle, said some death-care providers of the Jewish faith have been recalling a story in the Midrash (a text that includes commentary on the Torah). “It says that if a wedding procession and a funeral procession meet at a crossroads, the wedding procession should go first,” she said. “Celebration should go first, life should go first — that means we’re prioritizing protecting the living.”

Faith-oriented leaders (Rabbi Paula Rose of the Congregation Beth Shalom, Rabbi Benjamin Hassan of the Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation, Nickhath Sheriff of the Muslim Community Resource Center, or MCRC) say their communities are learning how to balance honoring the dead while supporting the living.

Some Muslims, Sheriff said, are experimenting with digital tools like Zoom and WhatsApp for group prayer and consolation. “The community comes together to give solace to the deceased’s soul, pray for forgiveness for the person and comfort the family,” she said. “We are trying to balance our religious obligations with the government and city obligations.”

Advertising

Zoom and Google Hangouts are especially useful for sitting shiva in Judaism, the seven-day period of mourning when friends and family visit the home of the bereaved. But Muslim and Jewish leaders agreed that while digital solace gives a taste of support, it’s no replacement for hugs and presence.

“It’s obviously not the same,” Rose said. “Our prayer services involve a lot of song — it’s very hard to sing together over Zoom, and that’s something that’s been a real loss.”

Rabbi Hassan quoted the Torah: “‘You shall live by them,’ ‘them’ being the laws,” he said. “The rabbinical learning interprets this as ‘you should not die by them.’ In the Jewish community, saving a life is more valuable and more essential than any ritualistic process. But there’s only so much cards, emails and Zoom can do.”

For now, bathing of the dead — called tahara in Judaism and ghusl in Islam — is continuing, but with heightened safety protocols and personal protective equipment. “Right now, we are treating each body as if it’s been infected,” Sheriff, of the MCRC, said. “Just for the public safety.”

As Christians, Muslims, Pagans and Jews figure out how to proceed with funeral traditions under fraught circumstances, others have simply suspended their plans.

“The cremation rate in Washington is 80%,” Goff, of the Funeral Directors Association, said. “It’s not uncommon for people to have the cremation and then the gathering weeks or months later.”

Advertising

But that can lead to another species of heartache: limbo. Robin Partington, whose husband died suddenly in September, was planning a celebration of life for March 28 at a farm in Puyallup.

“Spring was his favorite season,” she said. “A lot of family from the East Coast was coming — a lot of planning went into making it very special.”

She had to postpone. The celebration is rescheduled for July 11, but Partington knows she may have to cancel again. “I understand the restrictions,” she said. “But it’s also heartbreaking and confusing. It’s not just the event itself, but the processing and the connection that goes along with that.”

One thing nobody disputes: This coronavirus crisis, and the resultant restrictions on funerals, is tough on everyone, from families to religious communities to state regulators who have to enforce difficult rules.

“This is a learning process,” Sheriff said. “We are all trying to do our best in this time of test.”

More on the coronavirus outbreak

How is the pandemic affecting you?

What has changed about your daily life? What kinds of discussions are you having with family members and friends? Are you a health care worker who's on the front lines of the response? Are you a COVID-19 patient or do you know one? Whoever you are, we want to hear from you so our news coverage is as complete, accurate and useful as possible. If you're using a mobile device and can't see the form on this page, click here.