Planning memorial service way ahead in times of COVID
June 29, 2022 9:42 AM   Subscribe

How does one go about planning a memorial service for a partner when you know they're going to die (in times of COVID) but not when?

Mr. Peach has stage 4 colon cancer. This is a fact. He's actually doing better right now than he has been for the last four and a half months, but he's gonna go at some point. Having been through being my mother's caregiver, I know a lot of stuff takes care of itself and that I will have to call 911 if he dies at home and they'll take him away for diagnosis and then hand him over to whatever funeral home I designate. He's an Episcopalian so I know I could probably call his old church and set up a weekday service. But I would like to start planning for it now, and ideally even pay for some of it.

He is much loved by a bunch of people who will want to attend a memorial. However, many people I know have gotten COVID at memorials and weddings and I don't want to risk it for them. Will funeral homes arrange outdoor services? Woudl that work? Should I try for a tiny family-pod service (me, my kid, the son-in-law, the grandkid) and then do an outside memorial service for all the folks who will want to celebrate his life? Can I put it off for a long while in case things get better?

What did you do? I'm looking for nuts-and-bolts, personal preferences, and things that were good experiences.
posted by Peach to Human Relations (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Episcopal church allows for graveside services. That would at least permit for an outdoor service to minimize COVID risk. It's a beautiful and dignified liturgy, if it's consistent with one's values and beliefs.
posted by praemunire at 9:53 AM on June 29, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so sorry.

For practical things, I'd recommend the following:

1. Do they have a will? Is it current? And, do you have access to it, if you are made the Executrix of it?

2. Do they have an Episcopal church that they used to be a member at, or are a current member of? I would call them, or send them an email, explaining your circumstance. I'm sure they have dealt with it before.

3. Have they made decisions about burial vs cremation? Do they have a funeral home picked out to perform these services? And, what they will want in terms of a casket/urn/service? I had to handle this when both of my parents died; the stress of doing things quickly + grief = funeral homes trying to upsell you stuff you don't need, because "wouldn't you want the best for your Loved One?" Being able to calmly go in ahead of time to pick out everything and make plans with the funeral home, which there is stiil time, would be recommended, IMHO. That way, when the inevitible happens, you can just make a phone call to them, and then they execute the plan you already set up with them.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:02 AM on June 29, 2022 [3 favorites]

My grandparents made all these decisions in their 60s, and didn't die until their 90s. It's sad, but not odd or uncommon to have burial plans way ahead of time, and they can make the decisions and payment arrangements where that is not such a burden.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:05 AM on June 29, 2022 [5 favorites]

I am sorry to hear about Mr. Peach. Thoughts and prayers are with him and you.

I just went to a wake inside a room at a funeral parlor. About 50 people there. Some wore masks. Most did not. There was a graveside service the next day. I guess that if you were not comfortable at the indoors wake, you could attend the graveside service. I have seen some graveside services say for family members only, but most do not.

I think there is a large range of opinions now on covid prevention. Some are still at home and masked and some do not give a second thought to it. I think it is best to plan what the immediate family prefers and to the extent possible what the most people likely to attend think.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:55 AM on June 29, 2022

Best answer: Typically the funeral announcement will be immediately with services/burial as the facility is offering them (seasonal weather delays or COVID restrictions affect local services occasionally). I've seen some services shared via Zoom at the time of death with a later memorial gathering at the one-year anniversary of the death or whenever everyone was able to attend.

Will an obituary or similar be needed? It might be worthwhile to begin this now so it can include or omit any information/memories that he does/does not want made public. And also gives you a chance to laud him while he still is aware of it. My father-in-law pre-wrote his to emphasize his community friends and contributions and that he looked forward to poker games with his military WW1 buds to expand to include his new buds--which is not something we would have thought to include. Other relatives did not pre-write and basically only a list of relatives, jobs and education was published (the paper offered a template) as no one had the energy or skillset to write something more meaningful extemporaneously.

Any preference for music or readings at his services or memorial? Speakers? Pallbearers if needed?

Similarly, ask if there is a preferred charity for memorial contributions if that's a thing your circle does.

Catering if that's a thing your circle does.

And know who your own support people will be and if they should have defined roles.

Best wishes during all this.
posted by beaning at 10:56 AM on June 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

very sorry you are facing this, Peach.

a friend died early in Covid and a bunch of us met in a big park for an informal memorial service. it was really great to be able to gather (altho tough with everyone in masks and uncertain if it was safe to even hug in masks, back in June2020) but it felt very safe and it was very very needed. I say have the tiny (pod) ceremony and then do something bigger in an outdoor space. hugs to you and your loved ones.
posted by supermedusa at 11:01 AM on June 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Not sure whether this is included in what you’re asking, but most funeral homes let you preplan funerals, including ordering the coffin or urn, which sounds morbid but has the benefit of letting you take your time to choose what you want and what you want to spend without the pressure or pain of recent loss. It’s sometimes less costly to prepay as well.
posted by Mchelly at 11:06 AM on June 29, 2022 [3 favorites]

I would look into palliative care - either in a palliative hospital or with visits from a palliative home nurse. They do symptom management (hydration, pain, etc) and can help you guess how much time is left and advise on how to make the planning easier for yourself. Wishing you all the best.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:06 AM on June 29, 2022 [5 favorites]

Lots of good advice above; I still have not had a memorial service for my husband, who died at home of brain cancer in 2020, first because I couldn’t figure out how to do it safely (which was maybe not possible in October 2020) and since then because… idk, it’s like there’s no urgency now. In your shoes I would plan something you’re comfortable with. I’m sure you can have an outdoor service if that’s what you want, maybe at a restaurant with outdoor seating or outside the church (I’ve noticed a lot of churches in my area appear to have moved their coffee hours outside).

FWIW, I did not have to call 911 when my husband died; I called the home hospice service who we were working with and they sent a nurse who confirmed the death, and then when I was ready I called the funeral home to come pick up his body. (I think his oncologist was the one who signed the actual official death certificate - obviously your jurisdiction may vary, and maybe you don’t plan to use a visiting nurse/hospice, but if calling 911 sounds stressful just know that it may not be necessary).

Memail me if you want to chat.
posted by mskyle at 11:15 AM on June 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

This is so hard. My heart goes out to you, Mr. Peach, and your family.

My mom died after a long decline at the very start of COVID as states were going into lockdown. Because she had been ill for awhile, I was proactive about talking to her in the preceding months about what she wanted to happen when & after she died. For instance, she had put together packets for each of us kids, containing photos and other mementos.

She was Episcopalian as well and had selected a hymn for her memorial service and wanted a particular priest to be the celebrant, so I made that preliminary request. Oh, and because I knew she would have wanted it, I asked him to come in and give her the Episcopal version of last rites (prayer and blessing, I think).

All the arrangements with the funeral director were done by phone and digitally. He had strict no-contact protocols in place for dropping off items, picking up ashes, etc. The high cost of the obit surprised me. I just put in a line about having "a memorial service at a future date."

And then.... we did nothing. For a long time. As mskyle said, the sense of urgency drops off. We finally had a small graveside service with just a handful of family, her best friend, and the priest in Aug of last year (nearly 18 months after her death). We gifted the priest $300 for doing the service.

Upon reflection, I missed the chance to have some type of community/family gathering to help with my grieving. I would have loved to hear other people tell stories about her, even if just on a zoom call.
posted by jenquat at 11:53 AM on June 29, 2022 [3 favorites]

The first year I knew my now-husband, his grandmother died in the middle of winter in northwestern Ontario. So they waited until late spring to do the service and burial. Obviously that’s not possible everywhere, but the point is that delayed services are a thing. This was well back in the before times, so we had a regular service in a church, but if necessary waiting until the weather is cooperative for an outdoor service is also a possibility.
posted by tubedogg at 12:00 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

I would look into palliative care - either in a palliative hospital or with visits from a palliative home nurse. They do symptom management (hydration, pain, etc) and can help you guess how much time is left and advise on how to make the planning easier for yourself.

Agree. This can be regionally determined but when my landlady died at home she was receiving hospice care which meant that when she died we could just call hospice, they would talk us through next steps (including letting the funeral home come later rather than sooner) and we did not need to call 911. The family decided to just do a service at a later date which was what was included in the obit.

And yes if Mr. Peach wants to be involved in this process and is doing well enough to rgister his opinions, this is a great opportunity to have him let you know what would be meaningful to him. I had a much-loved cousin who died accidentally during COVID and the family opted for a large indoor service which I did not want to attend but also had a very well-done Zoom service so that we could join in from home. I've been to a few Zoom services over the past two years and they range widely in quality, but in nearly every case they allow people to be in attendance if they are not feeling okay with whatever plan you put together.

And yes, you can put this off. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of him and your family. I am sorry you're managing this right now, it's hard.
posted by jessamyn at 12:07 PM on June 29, 2022 [3 favorites]

I would probably have a think about whether you are likely to want an Episcopalian service or not. It's a liturgical denomination, so I think there's likely to be a 'set with variations' way of doing funerals. This may be just right for you, or not at all right.
posted by plonkee at 12:17 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Very sorry you are all facing this.

You can absolutely have an outdoor service. My dad was cremated and his ashes scattered in the rose garden of a cemetery. While this was pre-Covid and we opted to do the service in the chapel, the cemetery also offered the option to do it in the rose garden as well. We had people back to the BnB we were staying in, and had a very nice but casual catered reception in the back garden. You could do similar in a local restaurant with an outdoor dining area, or your own home or whatever you wish. I love event planning and honestly being able to plan the catering, venue, flowers, etc was such a good thing for me to be able to focus on.

You have the luxury of getting costs now, which is such a reassuring thing to be able to do. You can get quotes for a lot of options and just go with whomever can accommodate you when the time comes. You can pre-pay the cremation or burial costs now as well.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:59 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: +1ing the fact that Episcopalians are allowed to have graveside services - and in fact we are allowed to have services outside in general, including complete funeral or memorial services, if people want them. My Episcopal church held services outside for a chunk of the pandemic. So if you and he feel that would be a choice that would be meaningful and good, then I recommend you reach out to his church.

Actually, I recommend you reach out to them anyway. A priest will know a lot about the way that funerals are usually planned, even if they are not going to be held in the church, and may be able to help you and him navigate this. They are unlikely to judge him and you for deciding to have any kind of service, even if you don't end up going with a religious funeral—priests know that every family has different needs. And if he has or ever had a relationship with the priest and congregation, they will very much want to know that he is in such poor health. They may even have a committee of people who would like to help you with the various necessary tasks in this difficult time, if that is something you want and need.
posted by branca at 2:15 PM on June 29, 2022 [4 favorites]

He's doing well now and it's summer so you might consider a celebration of his life now while he's still here and it can be held outdoors?
posted by mareli at 3:40 PM on June 29, 2022

I'm so sorry.

I agree with those recommending hospice. They will provide support to both of you and answers to these questions. Also agree that the church may offer advice grounded in current norms.

I had a nice outdoor memorial service for my dad in a park. I also attended a lovely zoom memorial recently. Perhaps there's another family member or friend who can help you think this through... it's a lot to figure out on your own.
posted by latkes at 11:04 PM on June 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all! Would love to hear more of your experiences.

Incidentally, Mr. Peach is already getting palliative care and will have hospice when the time comes - he has a great oncology practice that provides all kinds of care. He has a will, and I have a health care POA. Also, he may survive another couple of years based on his stellar ability to put up with toxic chemicals, or (as I realized yesterday while driving home) he could die at any moment from side causes like stroke or side effects of his inability to eat, so I had better be prepared JUST IN CASE.

Personal story: I was my mother's caregiver. She was an Episcopal priest. When she died, the bishop presided over her service, as was the custom. It was SO MUCH FUN sitting with the bishop at my kitchen table planning the service beforehand. Big old bony guy I had seen at a distance for decades was sitting there picking out hymns and alternate language with me and chuckling about everything. My sister, the Buddhist, was sitting there gobsmacked.
posted by Peach at 4:18 AM on June 30, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My grandmother passed last year in September from dementia and a few other things. She prepaid her funeral when my grandfather died in 2001, and I believe my aunt just had to do a few small details when Grandma passed. The funeral home had a nice outdoor pavilion close to where she was to be buried, in the same spot in the mausoleum as Grandpa. We had the service outside with visitation in a smaller room inside the funeral home for a few days beforehand. We had the slideshow ready to go with the actual photos displayed as well plus one of her quilts to cover the casket.
posted by tlwright at 4:31 PM on July 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all! I haven't decided what I'll do, but it's good to know there are options.
posted by Peach at 6:17 PM on July 31, 2022

Response by poster: Update: I thank you for all your kind advice! I took lots of notes. I had a quiet conversation at an opportune time with my spouse, and discussed what might be nice for memorials, etc. He told me he didn't care what happened, but then he had a nice cry and talked about his tentatitve thoughts.

Today I met with a representative of a cemetery and puchased a cremation plot for the two of us in a quiet spot. The price includes opening/closing and an urn for the first burial. Cremation plots are just tiny spaces, right next to other ones, and I suspect it's how they use up spare spots in between other burials, but that's fine by me. The salesman gave me information about planning memorials, and my spouse told me that the clergy at his church are available to conduct graveside services. The funeral home attached to the cemetery can be very creative with outside memorials, he said, which answered my biggest worry. They also offer recordings and Zoom participation. (A number of friends have contracted COVID as a result of large gatherings like funerals and weddings)

He's not on hospice yet, but I"m hoping our telemedicine appointment tomorrow moves us closer, because right now he's in bed almost all the time and is very lethargic.

I will make other plans later on, but my mind is considerably calmer now that I have all your suggestions and the information from the funeral director.
posted by Peach at 8:27 AM on August 15, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Aaaaand today the oncologist said it’s time for hospice. So I wasn’t jumping the gun at ALL.
posted by Peach at 2:24 PM on August 16, 2022 [5 favorites]

Thoughts and prayers are with you and Mr. Peach.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:55 AM on August 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: RIP Mr. Peach September 18, 2022 3:00pm.
posted by Peach at 4:24 PM on September 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'm so sorry.
posted by Mchelly at 10:26 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Thank you for letting us know. Take good care.
posted by latkes at 10:03 AM on September 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, and we are having an outdoor graveside service for a select few, and then in the third weekend of October we're having a sort-of-picnic outside on Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. We're telling everyone to come. I didn't realize when I was worrying about all of this that our child is not only a Grown-Up, they are a Project Manager who has endless experience in Putting On Events. They had everything in place by this afternoon, including permits, and I am resigned to fading into the background now because they know what they are doing.

Will stop thread-sitting now but this thread has been a sort of bookmark for the saga.
posted by Peach at 6:37 PM on September 19, 2022 [5 favorites]

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