by Elpidio Estioko
Are we burying our dead the traditional way during the pandemic? What must be done to respect tradition and keep people safe during funeral rites and COVID-19?
When the coronavirus settled in the US about a year ago, it meant not only making government and personal decisions on how to care for the sick, address the issue, and fight the spread of the virus, but also on how funerals should be carried out.
Published in The Conversation (July 7, 2020), anthropological research shows that generally, around the world, the ceremony around funerals begins at the first signs that someone might die, and continues after the burial. These “funeral rites” include rituals, ceremonies and acts which are cultural and religious obligations. We must ensure that standard precautions are applied since they have a direct impact on a whole range of funeral practices.
Records show that lessons from Ebola, during West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, certain funeral rites contributed to the spread. For this reason, “safe burials” specialized procedures were put in place. For instance, “agents had to carry out Ebola tests on all deceased persons and uphold bans that prevented families from touching the body.”
Across all the affected countries, “these procedures clashed with local funeral customs. People often perceived them as disrespectful to the deceased, families, and community at large.”
The World Health Organization and other institutions, taking into consideration local values and social practices, decided to change these burial procedures and recommended “safe and dignified burials” or “risk-free burials with dignity” such as respecting the family’s cultural and religious practices.
On January 21, 2021, my sister-in-law Ermina Diaz Estioko, 83, married to my elder brother Romulo, passed away at a time that the pandemic is still surging. She did not die of COVID-19 but due to lingering illness. We were able to claim her body and came out with burial procedures the pandemic way.
After complying with the required documentations, burial rites were scheduled. Burial mass with St. Victor Catholic Church in Berryessa, San Jose was held on February 20, 2021, officiated by the priest inside the church. We complied with church requirements and other safety regulations.
At the church, we occupied every other pew (alternate) and seated with 6-feet distance from each other, with 35 close relatives in attendance. Unlike three months ago, this number should have been reduced to 12 or 15 due to the upsurge of death tolls at that time.
The priest officiated the mass wearing a face mask on and likewise maintaining social distancing. The queue for the communion is also distanced in such a way that we were complying with CDC regulations.
The casket was never opened and was covered with a white cloth during the entire duration of the mass. The cloth was removed after the mass and the flowers were put back on top of the coffin for the exit.
All attendees signed the registry book with their pertinent contact information. The church clerk explained to us that this is essential because in case somebody becomes COVID-19 positive after the mass, the registry book will serve as a document for contact tracing.
We maintained the 6-feet social distancing, and everybody wore a mask or face covering. Because of the face coverings, we hardly recognized each other except when we came closer to each other and introduced ourselves. Of course, it’s difficult to ban attending funerals, mass rites included, given people’s natural inclination and social obligations.
For those who were not able to attend the mass rites, they joined us via Zoom courtesy of May assisted by Michael and Jane, who took video footage.
CDC Guidelines outlined funeral guidance for individuals and families which we followed. Our grief due to the loss of our loved one during the fear and anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic was overwhelming.
To help lower the risk of virus spread, we followed these guiding principles: The more people interact, the closer in distance the interaction is (less than 6 feet), and the longer the interaction lasts, the higher the risk of spreading COVID-19; Masks reduce the chances of getting and spreading COVID-19; During the in-person gathering in church/indoor, a well-ventilated area; and outdoor (cemetery site) to help lower risk of spreading COVID-19; and Practice social distancing by maintaining at least 6 feet between attendees; facility and clergy officiants, as well.
Given the pandemic, we were aware that hosting gatherings now could be dangerous to those who would want to participate, so we found alternate ways to connect, support each other, and grieve after their loss via the Zoom meeting.
We considered the following modifications to funeral services to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 such as limiting the attendees to a small number of immediate family and close friends; and practiced social distancing.
After the mass, we drove to Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose for the burial rites. We likewise observed social distancing and people attending wore their masks/face coverings. Thirty-two close relatives who joined the burial rites were Rhoda Estioko; Rocky and Myrna Estioko; Dr. Romy Villar and children; Simo and Jeng Castillo; Al and Wilma Estioko; Seymour Estioko; Gina’s family; my wife Delia and myself with daughter May; and Rica Estioko; among others.
For those who were not able to make it, they joined us via Zoom: Dr. Manuel and Bobbie Estioko from Pacific Palisades; Mar Estioko, Canada; Marciano and Rosie Estioko, Jr., and their kids, San Jose; Paul Estioko and Tweety Estioko-Rasay from Hawaii; and Aurora and Rene Rentar, San Jose; among others.
The casket was never opened for viewing. After the priest’s burial prayers, we were asked individually to place our hand on the side of the coffin and say a few words in silence. Then, when every individual was done, the coffin was lowered to the ground. Then, we were asked to drop individual flowers and again pray in silence. After everybody has dropped their flowers, the coffin was covered with soil and my sister-in-law was laid to rest… forever!
She is survived by her husband Romulo; children Marius, Rica, Richard, and Gina; and grandchildren Michael, Julian, Nikko, Sarah, Tiffany, Morgan, Bobby, Rachel, and Jason.
During the burial rites, we took steps to protect ourselves, the corona way! Manang Ermina, may your soul rest in peace! We love you!
ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author @ firstname.lastname@example.org.