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Funeral rites curtailed as crisis continues to grow

Video streaming, smaller groups necessary; some watch burial from car

By Andrea Ball

aball@gatehousemedia.com

After Henry Gonzalez’s niece died in a car crash in early March, the family expected the funeral would be like all the others they’d attended.

A packed viewing. A full church and a Catholic Mass. A big graveside service followed by a luncheon, where family and friends could comfort each other and remember 27-year-old Elena Tello.

But in the new world defined by the coronavirus, that’s not what happened. The funeral home viewing could only host 10 people at a time. Only seven family members could attend the church service. And to prevent exposure to cemetery workers, Tello’s family had to watch the casket being lowered into the grave from their car.

It was hard, Gonzalez said. But Mission Funeral Home in Austin guided them through it, providing a video stream of the services, which was viewed by almost 1,000 people.

“Under the circumstances, it came out really well,” Gonzalez said As the country shifts to a new normal, life is not the only thing changing — so is the way we handle death. Social distancing has forced funeral homes and houses of worship to rethink how they handle services, balancing the need for social distancing with the desire of families to congregate during traumatic times.

Earlier this month, funeral services for Travis County sheriff’s Senior Deputy Christopher Korzilius — who died in a headon collision March 18 — were curtailed because of coronavirus concerns. Because of the ban on mass gatherings, he was not able to have a funeral with full honors. Instead, his family had a small, private service and shared a recording with sheriff’s office employees. Three marked vehicles were positioned in the parking lot, and the sheriff’s office honor guard provided funeral honors in the lobby area.

Charles Villaseñor, owner of Mission Funeral Home, said adjusting to the new rules has been challenging because they have changed so much. First, the city of Austin banned gatherings of more than 250 people, and then ultimately went down to no more than 10. Officials prescribed social distancing, insisting that people keep at least 6 feet between them whenever possible.

Failing to follow the no-more-than-10 rule could result in a $1,000 fine or 180 days in jail.

It’s taken a lot of communication to help families understand the need to limit the number of people in the chapel or by the graveside, Villaseñor said. Some people are especially emotionally raw because their loved ones have died in nursing homes or health facilities where visitors are not being allowed.

“We are trying to make everything as flexible as possible for the family,” Villaseñor said.

The coronavirus also has changed some “I think what we all recognize is we don’t know what we don’t know yet. Things are going to get more restrictive before they get better.”

Rabbi Neil Blumofe with Congregation Agudas Achim

Jewish traditions, said Rabbi Neil Blumofe with Congregation Agudas Achim. Shiva, a sevenday mourning period after a death, generally involves numerous people gathering at the homes of bereaved loved ones. Now, shiva is being handled online, Blumofe said, as are services.

“I think what we all recognize is we don’t know what we don’t know yet,” Blumofe said. “Things are going to get more restrictive before they get better.”

Gene Allen — president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association and owner of funeral homes in Kerrville and West Texas — said many funeral homes have turned to internet streaming for visitations and memorial services. His funeral homes are encouraging people to make arrangements over the phone to minimize contact. If the family wants to come in, the homes are encouraging only two people visit the funeral home.

Funeral workers are taking typical precautions when dealing with people who have died, such as wearing personal protection equipment, Allen said. Early in their training, morticians are taught to treat every body as if it might be infectious, he said.

“We’re making sure we don’t cut any corners,” he said.

After the coronavirus pandemic is under control and restrictions are over, Elena Tello’s family plans to have a memorial gathering for her.

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