With funerals halted, local priests are ‘there to the maximum extent’ for grieving families

Cemetery and funeral workers in protective masks transport a coffin into a cemetery in Bergamo, Italy, on March 16. Across the Archdiocese of Detroit — like much of the rest of the world — priests and cemetery workers are challenged with finding ways to minister to those grieving the loss of a loved one amid heightened funeral restrictions. (Flavio Lo Scalzo, Reuters | CNS photo)

Remembering the deceased in private Masses, phone calls to family members and delayed memorials just some of the ways priests offer hope

LINCON PARK — It’s a sobering reality, but as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, more and more families are dealing with death and funerals under the guidelines of social distancing.

Michigan — an epicenter of the outbreak nationwide — has more than 20,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths, with experts saying those numbers will rise. 

Such tragedies are compounded by the fact that mourners cannot gather as they normally would, even for Catholic funeral services, out of fears the virus may spread further. 

A March 23 directive from Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron suspended all funerals in the Archdiocese of Detroit until April 13, which later was extended to April 30. Priests may consult with funeral directors when families request graveside services or the rites proper to Christian burial outside of Mass.

Bob Hojnacki, director of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services for the archdiocese, said cemeteries and funeral homes are limiting all services to fewer than 10 people.

Hojnacki said only outside committal services — whether a burial or an interment in a mausoleum — are being done. If a cremation takes place, a funeral service with the cremated remains may take place at a later date when the pandemic is over, according to the archdiocese’s current regulations.

Flowers are seen on a crypt at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

For priests charged with comforting families mourning the loss of a loved one, the restrictions make a painful situation even more painful. 

“It’s certainly not what anybody would hope for,” Fr. Bob LaCroix, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Novi, told Detroit Catholic. “We want to be there to the maximum extent that the circumstances permit. I think our commitment to accompany the family, to be there, to pray with them and to bless the body and make it ready for burial is still there.”

Hojnacki said Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services has fielded questions about delaying funerals until the pandemic is over.

“We have had families request funeral homes to hold on to the deceased to see what things look like in a couple of weeks,” Hojnacki said. “As long as funeral homes have the capacity, they can do that. But our cemeteries do not have a mortuary, so when remains come in from the funeral home, we do the burial directly.”

Parish priests have also been asked about the possibility of delaying funerals until the pandemic subsides and restrictions on larger gatherings are lifted, but that could create a large backlog, depending on how long the crisis persists.

“We do well over 120 funerals a year, so delaying funerals or memorial services would potentially create a backlog,” said Fr. Tim Birney, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park. 

A young girl and her mother visit the grave of a family member at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wyandotte. With funerals currently suspended, priests can celebrate private graveside services in some limited circumstances. (Melissa Moon | Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Birney said St. Frances Cabrini is planning to hold a comprehensive All Souls Day Mass in November, “inviting all the people in the parish who lost someone through the year, especially during the shutdown, inviting them back for a special Mass.”

Priests are still encouraged to celebrate private Masses for the souls of the deceased, in order to provide the departed soul with the grace normally offered through the celebration of the Eucharist. And once churches are finally opened, larger memorial Masses with the faithful present could be offered.

While death is a normal part of life even apart from the pandemic, when the deceased is someone who suffered from COVID-19, it requires even more special care.

Hojnacki said the cemeteries are taking extra precautions for all burials, but if the deceased had the novel coronavirus, family is unable to be present for the burial.

“Right now we everything going on, we are following CDC guidelines in terms of cleaning and social distancing,” Hojnacki said. “Should we get any virus-related deaths, we do have special equipment, gloves and gowns and masks for grounds crews to wear. In those cases, it will be direct burials with no family present.”

As the situation continues to evolve, Fr. Birney said priests must rise to the challenge of continuing to serve their people.

A priest blesses the coffins of two victims of the coronavirus disease during a burial ceremony in Cisternino, Italy, on March 30. (Alessandro Garofalo, Reuters | CNS photo)

“It’s challenging because we can’t do what we would normally do in this situation,” Fr. Birney said. “There are restrictions on hospitals and nursing homes, so it drastically changes how we do ministry.”

Hojnacki said Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services keeps a list of families who have buried a loved one in the past year, and staff makes phone calls to talk, pray with or comfort survivors.

“We are calling on all families, not just the ones with virus-related deaths, to make sure they are OK, and to ask if they want anyone to be placed on our prayer list,” Hojnacki said. “Everyone on staff has a list of families they are responsible for, and we’ve been calling families for the past few days. There is a lot of anxiety in the community, and it’s really good to check on families members and let them know we’re praying for them.”

Priests also are praying for an end to the pestilence, and that families will one day have an opportunity to grieve a lost loved one in a more complete way.

“We’re all praying this will end sooner rather than later, so we can minister to the sick, the dying, the grieving in a way we are used to,” Fr. Birney said. “Other celebrations like baptisms, weddings and Masses are all important moments of grace, but nothing is as personal as a funeral. The sooner we can fully minister to the sick and dying, the better.”