By DEVYANI CHHETRI, The Greenville News
GREENVILLE, SC (AP) – On a mild October afternoon, Kay E. Woodward stood in front of Spartanburg’s JW Woodward Funeral Home with an urn in the crook of her elbow and another arm toward a family.
A familiar sight for a family business, the oldest black business in town, has been a major pillar of the community for over a hundred years. Thomas Massey, one of the funeral directors, joined her shortly afterwards.
In Pickens County, miles away, on another community crutch that has been around for nearly a century, Chris Robinson, clad in black and not a hair out of place, turned quietly around the corner at the Robinson Funeral Home. He had just returned from a funeral service.
Woodward, Massey, and Robinson ran funeral services and always stood on the last stop.
In conversations about COVID-19, everyone described a two-year âfogâ. They talked about how to get creative with live streams and webcasts, what they did to help families mourn outside in tents, on newly built open-air grounds, next to graves – and at a funeral mourn with newer ones Means to mix: masks and distance.
But unlike last year, since each of their first confirmed COVID-19 funerals in April 2020, this year is different. There are vaccines, they said, and the number of deaths has decreased. And just when they thought it was going to get better, everything started all over again.
While overseeing successive ministries and urging members in Spartanburg and Easley, two COVID-19 hotspots in South Carolina, to mask and vaccinate, they continually assumed new roles, teaching families about the importance of precautions and vaccinations enlighten and a new facet of how COVID-19 has changed the process of grieving.
“I don’t think we ever get tired of trying to educate,” said Woodward.
CELEBRATING LIFE AND OFFERING A MAJOR MINISTRY
Somewhere between 15 and 80 feet, Woodward once sprinted forward from the back of the chapel to keep people from hugging, a gentle âno, no, no,â not too far behind. Massey has confirmed this.
“People tried to lean forward and comfort one another,” she said. “And you just can’t do that.”
Woodward said the family has been escorted and has someone to make sure people don’t go over to hug, shake hands, or kiss the family. Although she understood that hugging each other in sadness was a natural instinct, there was a pandemic that she couldn’t ignore. “Sometimes we’re probably not really popular,” she said.
But there is nothing wrong with worrying about safety.
A February 2020 memorial service in Albany, Georgia, had become the epicenter of a large coronavirus cluster. There have been nearly 500 confirmed coronavirus cases in just two months, and at least 29 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported in the Dougherty County city as of April 1, 2020.
As of September this year, Spartanburg County had the highest hospital admission rate in the US with a rate of 38 COVID patients per 100 beds, the Washington Post reported.
Meanwhile, Robinson had safety signs posted and said he was in contact with health professionals at nearby nursing homes and regional hospitals. Robinson served three locations, one in downtown Easley, one on Powdersville Road, and one in Clemson.
At its peak in August and early September this year, he said he had been watching people’s mental strain. “Health professionals had to become families and say goodbye to patients because their loved ones could not enter the hospital,” he said.
Of course he saw anger, but he understood that too. âIt was because they couldn’t be by the side of their loved ones,â he said. “Not knowing.” He knew families with members who were fine only to worsen their health the next day.
With each of the parishes having different policies, with Clemson operating under a masked mandate until Oct. 18, for example, Robinson spoke with families and discussed how to conduct funerals and noted an increase in private visits.
He said the funeral home and its employees must remain cautious to keep everyone safe.
“The virus is still out there and you need to be careful who may have been exposed,” he said.
In fact, discussing precautions and safety protocols with a grieving family is an interaction that grief researchers have tried to understand.
Disenfranchised grief, where family members feel underserved when they are unable to grieve the traditional way, can lead to complex grief – a state of being trapped in eternal grief and unable to heal which often leads to more worrisome, more dangerous behavior.
The changing face of grief has led the funeral industry to go beyond its roots in personal interaction and community healing.
Last year, at the start of the pandemic, Robinson, who is affiliated with the National Funeral Directors Association, an advocacy and education organization, said the NFDA had sent letters to the federal government to prepare for a shipment of personal protective equipment.
Throughout the summer, the organization campaigned for PPE to be expanded beyond the health sector. This helped funeral directors cope with the pandemic.
Robinson recently attended an NFDA conference in Nashville, Tennessee, the first in-person event for the organization in some time. Of course, he said, the pandemic changed the way funeral directors lived their own lives.
Thomas Massey agreed. As a young man, Massey was taught to shake hands and it was a gesture that was second nature to him as a funeral director, he said. But with the Delta variant firmly in control of Spartanburg, Massey wondered how he could protect himself.
“I just can’t hug anyone anymore,” he said.
Perhaps this was due to some other kind of isolation, Woodward wondered, different from the isolation of those whose lives had screeched to a halt and were forced to confine themselves to their homes.
Funeral homes never stopped working during the pandemic. “We don’t have a situation where we can work from home,” she said. Nothing is the same and no one can do things the same, she said.
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