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MILITARU: Coronavirus has ripped death rituals apart

Funeral processions are not something Americans are well acquainted with, but in the rural corners of Romania, black caravans followed by wailing women and somber brass notes routinely crawl through dirt streets at an agonizing pace and entangle every neighbor in the grief of a lost sibling, parent, grandparent or sometimes child. The louder the music, the more mournful the wails, the more important the corpse.

It is less morbid and more conceited. Grandmothers nowhere near their death-beds plan out the intricacies of their funeral, telling grandchildren the color of the flowers to buy, the type of marble their tombstone should be and which family members to not invite. 

For them, it is a final party they will attend as phantoms, a comfort that even after death they still have some semblance of control, even over something as trivial as the type of flowers that will adorn their grave. Funerals, as Tara Bailey so eloquently puts it, “conquer death" as an acknowledgment and acceptance of passing, a sort of permission for death to pass by. 

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is now a brutal reminder that no such permission is necessary. These mournful celebrations have been abruptly halted across the world, as cemeteries and morgues cannot keep up with the death toll. As of Sunday at 12:13 p.m., 67,865 people have died. If you are feeling particularly morbid, you can refresh this page for a higher number every second. Italy currently leads the death count with 16,523 deaths, with Spain and the U.S. coming in second and third respectively. 

Perhaps numbers so astronomically high are difficult to visualize, but the convoy of military trucks carrying the deceased far away from their grieving families or the mass graves dug in Iran are a grim visualization of how COVID-19 has quickly become an international avalanche, burying the vulnerable far away from their grieving families. 

COVID-19 has thrust us into what will likely be months of uncertainty and stolen our sense of agency, not least in the ways we grieve. How can families say goodbye when their loved ones are whisked away from hospital beds en masse? Grieving families have had to abandon their rituals, leaving them defenseless in the face of a mountain of emotional suffering, that can quickly become a mental health issue. 

This is not the first time people have to abandon their funeral rites. The Ebola epidemic caused similar problems. Bethesda Counseling Center responded to the desperation among families of the deceased in that crisis by offering alternative mourning practices that did not involve the body itself, such as writing letters to the dead and planting trees instead of erecting tombstones. 

While such practices had therapeutic effects, the power of funerals does not come just from the act of remembrance, but the deep roots of tradition and the use of the body itself. In Tana Toraja Regency, Indonesia, the dead stay with the family until a proper funeral can be held. During this interim period, the dead are dressed and displayed in the homes of their families, sometimes for years. 

In Chinese culture, the body is washed and dressed in a series of intricate rituals. In Europe, the bodies of dead saints were preserved as relics, to safeguard the “grace remaining in the martyr.” Perhaps the most famous use of corpses in mourning rituals are the Egyptian mummies, meticulously prepared for the judgment of the afterlife. 

Funeral processions in the streets of my grandmother’s Romanian village are the same today as they were generations ago, and the echo of our ancestors’ grief is just as much a solace as the ritual itself. Psychologist J. William Worden explained that the use of the body in the funeral proceedings is a way to accept the reality of the passing and deal with the finality of death. 

COVID-19 not only takes away the body of the deceased and the rituals surrounding it from mourners, but also the ability to gather and mourn together. Collective grieving is a way that communities and families heal after losing a loved one, and some psychologists even go as far as to say that without a period of collective mourning, the healing process can never truly come to a close. 

But we have not just lost control over our grieving rituals, but our own deaths too. The elderly and immunocompromised are at the mercy of the virus and the healthcare systems that treat them. My grandmother tells us every chance she gets that she plans on dying at home. 

This sentiment is not uncommon in Romania and has grown in the U.S., as well. Dying at home is yet another way we can claim some control over a part of our lives that is so utterly out of control. But for those demographics suffering from COVID-19 with a high mortality rate, once interred in a hospital, they will likely not be permitted to go home. 

Our generation, the college students and young adults, has grown up with the trust that the medical system can protect us against pandemics, but now, overwhelmed by the sheer number of sick and the novelty of COVID-19, our healthcare system cannot keep up, leaving us to wonder what will happen if we or a loved one gets sick. 

Will we be able to say goodbye in person? Will someone comfort the dying or triage them away in an effort to save as many lives as possible? If our loved ones are struck down by this virus, will we be able to honor their memories in the traditions our cultures always have? 

The little control we had over death, our own and the deaths of our loved ones, is quickly slipping away. Perhaps we are no more in control than we have ever been, but it is more apparent now than ever before, from our daily lives to the funerals many people will have to abandon it for the sake of everyone’s safety. 

Alice Militaru is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in economics. Her column, "Opinions No One Asked For," runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

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