A drive-by wake. A masked funeral. A memorial on Zoom. This is how families are facing death in the pandemic

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Ortiz-Sandoval’s mother, a few of her nine siblings and her daughter, Lydia Cardenas, listened to the priest.

In Spanish and English, he told stories of the 55-year-old’s passion for life, and her courage in battling the aggressive liver cancer that ultimately took it.

After the Mass, a line of friends and family watched from across the parking lot of McKenzie Mortuary Services in Long Beach, California, as Ortiz-Sandoval’s orchid-pink coffin was carried into a hearse. The procession, escorted by police, drove to the Forest Lawn cemetery in Cypress.

There, again, most of Ortiz-Sandoval’s family had to stay behind.

The precautions were taken, of course, so this funeral wouldn’t unwittingly become a breeding ground in the pandemic that already had claimed more than 100,000 lives in the United States alone.
In Illinois, three people had died and 16 were infected after attending a funeral and another event, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. In Georgia, about 20 cases had been traced back to a double memorial. And in Mississippi, a single funeral had sparked “many, many cases,” with the state’s health officer saying, “We don’t want a funeral to lead to more funerals.”

But however necessary, funeral restrictions have forced loved ones to make trade-offs in their darkest hours, often forgoing comforting traditions and limiting circles of support. The added discipline, though, also has managed to open new avenues for grieving and for celebrating lives that ended in this historic time, whether because of the coronavirus or not.

The social distancing measures weighed heavily on Cardenas, 22, who organized her late mother’s funeral with help from her aunt and her mom’s fiancé, Jeff Burson. As much as it hurt to not be able to give Ortiz-Sandoval the send-off she deserved, her daughter said, the measures were not too harsh.

Jesse Macias, Guadalupe Ortiz-Sandoval's son, kisses his mother's coffin as others watch from a distance at Forest Lawn Cypress cemetery in California.

“I wouldn’t want to expose my family, my loved ones to anything,” she said. “But I also don’t agree with it for the fact that so many public spaces are open, but a cemetery, which is open-air, is limited to 10 per funeral. It’s just not ideal.”

Stay-at-home measures were also not ideal in the weeks preceding Ortiz-Sandoval’s death.

“We had planned on getting married, but the coronavirus kind of put a damper on that,” Burson said, tearing up.

Ortiz-Sandoval, originally from Mexicali, Mexico, and raised in Southern California, loved sinking her feet in beach sand. “We’d be driving on the freeway, and she’d just spontaneously, you know, want to go to the beach,” Burson said.

“Lupe,” as Burson called her, liked to dance, see family, and go to the beach — none of which she could do during lockdown, he said, frustrated he couldn’t comfort his fiancée in her last days with her favorite things.

So, on her last birthday on May 17, even though Ortiz-Sandoval could no longer speak or move, family brought sand from the beach to her bedside, running it through her hands as they played sounds of waves crashing on a speaker. “She went like this,” Cardenas said, closing her eyes peacefully. “She smiled.”

A double Covid-19 funeral in New York

John Coronel thought he would be the only person allowed Friday at the burial of his father and sister at Rosehill Cemetery in New Jersey.

As the dreaded day approached, funeral director Amy Cunningham called him to say the cemetery had changed its coronavirus restrictions, and would allow up to 10 people at the grave site. John was thankful.

“It is kind of a relief because now the close family can be there together,” Coronel told CNN.

"Normally, we would have had a viewing and approached the casket," John Coronel told CNN before the funeral of his father and sister. "I feel like I don't get closure."
When the virus raged through New York City in mid-April, Carlos Coronel and his daughter Lordes Coronel both battled for their lives at a Brooklyn Hospital.

Carlos passed away on April 22 at age 71. Lordes died a few weeks later, on May 18, the day of her 51st birthday. Both died from Covid-19.

Seared into John Coronel’s memory is the last time he saw his father. A day before the older man was put on a ventilator, his son cried at his bedside and explained to him that doctors would have to intubate him to fight the virus, he recalled.

“Normally, we would have had a viewing and approached the casket,” Coronel told CNN before the funeral. “I feel like I don’t get closure.”

Although CDC guidance has evolved over the course of the pandemic, many funeral homes do not offer viewings to minimize any potential spread of Covid-19.

Instead, family and friends gathered on the street in front of the Coronel family’s home in Brooklyn as a minivan drove by carrying both coffins, side by side. Carlos Coronel’s favorite merengue song played from a small Bose speaker on the ground.

Murmurs of prayer and agony pierced through the face masks. John Coronel sobbed as he shared the moment with extended family over a Zoom video conference.

Neighbors paid their respects, peering from apartment windows overlooking the procession.

Neighbors kept their distance, paying their respect to Carlos and Lordes Coronal from their apartment windows, as the van carrying the two coffins stopped in front of the family home in Brooklyn, New York.

“I want my father and my sister to know that we all love them and we all feel really sad that they are not here anymore,” John Coronel said.

From there, nine members of the Coronel family drove off to New Jersey to lay their patriarch and his daughter to rest. The service lasted 20 minutes.

John Coronel’s teenage daughters stayed in the car outside the cemetery, too sad to witness the burial of their grandfather and aunt.

Outside the Coronel's family home, neighbors and friends gathered to bid farewell, wearing masks and trying to stay socially distant.

A ‘silver lining’ at a virtual memorial in Texas

Ben Phillips and Janet Weisner would never have considered a Zoom memorial for their father.

Donald Truett Phillips was a proud Texas native, a veteran of the US Army who served in Vietnam. He died on May 13, after a nine-year battle with cancer. He was 77-years-old.

“I was concerned,” Ben Phillips told CNN. “I kept thinking it’s not fair if my dad won’t have the proper funeral and service because of all this.”

Long before he entered hospice care — and long before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the United States — their father had written down his wishes for a traditional Baptist funeral with lots friends and family.

The military honors he envisioned didn’t happen at the socially distant burial service at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery last week due to restrictions to contain Covid-19. Neither did the large gathering with fried chicken, potato salad and lots of hugs and handshakes.

A video recording of Donald Truett Phillips funeral service two days earlier played during the virtual memories service.

“We desperately craved to honor my dad,” Weisner told CNN.

After some cajoling, the siblings turned to GatheringUs, an online service that hosts memorials on Zoom.

Two days after an intimate burial with only close family in attendance, 97 extended family members and friends of their dad’s logged on to the platform from all over the country.

“We got to celebrate with a lot of people who knew him from different parts of his life, who wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise,” his daughter told CNN.

“He always sang his favorite cowboy song after a long day of work,” three of Donald Phillips’ former coworkers shared with the group from their small Zoom quadrant logged in from Oklahoma.

Nearly 100 friends and family members logged on Zoom from all over the country for Donald Truett Phillips' memorial service.

Weisner and Ben Phillips told CNN they relished these memories and felt how beloved their father was. And they were not alone in their grief.

“Even tough times have some silver linings,” Phillips told CNN. “In the end, it really provided some blessings for our family.”



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