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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

In the past, community members would gather to bid farewell to their dead. Now, services are limited to immediate family members while others watch from a phone or computer screen.

Since COVID-19 first hit Alachua County, 33 virus-related deaths have been reported. To adapt to a socially distanced world, funeral services, both religious and secular, have included live streaming and other COVID-19-safe grieving options. 

COVID-19 separation leads to uncertainty because family members are isolated from their loved ones and unable to accompany them in person during their last moments, said Philip Daniels, a UF Counseling and Wellness Center clinical assistant professor. The pandemic and its sudden impact make these deaths feel unnatural.

Milam Funeral Home and Cremation Services, located at 311 S. Main St., opted to reduce the number of people in its facilities and require masks when hosting funeral services, funeral director Paul Anderson said. Services have been hosted through Zoom and Facebook Live, but most families prefer Zoom because Facebook copyright strikes most music, he said. 

Before the pandemic, about 40 people would come to a funeral, Anderson said. But since March, it’s been half.

The Independent Funeral Directors of Florida and the Academy of Graduate Embalmers of Georgia Inc, which Anderson uses for reference, haven’t reported any risk with handling bodies once infected with COVID-19, he said.

Milam’s staff has prepared the bodies of two to three COVID-19 patients, Anderson said. He said morticians at the funeral home wear foot coverings, face shields and water impervious gowns as they do with other bodies.

CampusView Church, located at 2720 SW 2nd Ave., has morticians prepare bodies of community members in the same way as Milam, said assistant minister Carol Rozear. The non-denominational Christian church hasn’t had any in-person funeral services since March due to COVID-19 safety regulations, she said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, family and close friends would gather to sing songs and pray. Families have now opted to host memorials through Zoom or to go straight to the burial site with only immediate family members in attendance, she said.

B'nai Israel Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery located at the corner of Williston and East University Avenue, has opted to only have 10 to 15 immediate family members at burials, Rabbi David Kaiman said. Funeral services are conducted at the cemetery instead of the congregation’s facilities.

No members of the congregation have died from COVID-19, but about five families opted to move their funeral services online through Zoom or B’nai Israel’s private website, Kaiman said. Families have always had the option to livestream funerals, but it became more popular in March after the county’s COVID-19 emergency orders.

Jewish tradition holds that life should be protected, so members of the community have understood that large funeral services, usually with 100 or 200 people, are no longer possible, said Rabbi Berl Goldman, director of the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Student Center.

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Before, the community would attend services to help the family members mourn, he said.

“A Jewish burial is a very sanctified and sacred act, considered the ultimate kindness,” Goldman said.

In Jewish tradition, the Jewish Burial Society, the community members trained to prepare bodies, will wash and dress the body in white vestment, Goldman said. Women will wash and dress female bodies, and men will wash and dress male bodies, he said.

Members of the Jewish Burial Society take extra precautions as a result of COVID-19, including conducting temperature checks and wearing masks, Goldman said.

At Jewish funerals, the dead are buried in simple wooden caskets, Goldman said. The community would rather focus on remembering the person’s character and morals as opposed to the external casket. Funerals don’t include flowers either, and dirt from Israel is used to cover the casket.

Saeed Khan, a member of the Islamic Community Center of Gainesville and the Hoda Center, said no Muslims have died from COVID-19 in Alachua County to his knowledge. However, all funerals are socially distanced in the Muslim side of Forest Meadows Funeral Home & Cemeteries, located at 725 NW 23rd Ave.

For the Muslim community, attending funerals is a religous duty. The tradition has changed because COVID-19 restrictions have limited funerals to family members, he said.

The family and a community member wash and place a white sheet over the body, Khan said. While Muslim tradition emphasizes that the body must be respected, it also states that the life of those preparing the body should be protected, too.

After the body is washed, an imam, the person who leads prayer, usually in a mosque, will pray for God to admit the deceased to paradise, Khan said. Community members drop dirt into the grave, and the body will be placed into the grave with the head facing Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and the direction Muslims face when they pray. 

Dry purification is used when preparing bodies of COVID-19 patients, he said. The body is sprinkled with water instead of washed. Bodies may not be washed in other situations as well, such as when doctors advise against opening a body bag in cases of infectious disease.

“Safeguarding the life is the number one principle of Islam,” he said. “So you have to be taking care of the people who will be involved.”

The Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, located at 7204 County Road 234, focuses on all-natural burials, which means bodies aren’t embalmed and buried in wood caskets. 

The cemetery has limited gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, assistant director Sarah Uhrig said. Family and friends can help with the burial process, which includes digging the gravesite and burying the dead in a natural wood casket, she said.

Burials where the deceased was infected with COVID-19 at the cemetery only include staff because family members could spread the virus to employees, Uhrig said. Family members can visit the burial site after employees have left the area. 

To Daniels, these limits could impact grieving families and make it harder for them to find closure. 

“People don’t want to talk about that because it is scary,” he said. “When the death comes, if it is not expected or if it is expected, that is an element that you have already taken care of.”

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