To bury or not to bury

In 2020, many families were faced with the grim task of burying their loved ones in a COVID environment and under strict rules, which meant they had to choose who would attend burials. This article, first carried by The Nassau Guardian on April 8, 2020, explores that issue which is still impacting Bahamian families as the year ends.

Gwendolyn Merlene Hanna’s family opted for a private committal service for the family matriarch, 10 days after the 96-year-old died with the country being under a 24-hour curfew in the fight to contain the COVID-19 spread. The funeral was held on Friday, April 3, hours before Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced The Bahamas’ first complete weekend lockdown.

“We were very fortunate to have decided to give her a Friday funeral as opposed to a Saturday funeral,” said Jan Knowles, Hanna’s granddaughter. “She had been ailing for some time, so it wasn’t that she passed suddenly, but she passed in the middle of this crisis. Then it was a matter of what do we do. We certainly didn’t want to have her holding for what started to appear to be an indefinite period because we did not know how long it would take us to come out of the situation that we’re in, to give her a proper burial. We concluded we would do a private committal service.”

Knowles’ family is among countless others that have to determine how and when to bury their loved ones who die as the world operates under a new normal, battling the coronavirus pandemic which has infected more than one million people globally.

“It’s hard to determine what to do,” she said. “We couldn’t see her (Hanna) just being there four weeks, six weeks…10 weeks and you don’t know how or what.”

Knowles said her family went ahead with private committal service, but has plans for a proper memorial service and celebration of Hanna’s long life.

“And of course, there was much to celebrate,” she said. “My grandmother was very outgoing, knew many people and was quite well-known.”

While Hanna’s family made their decision, many families find it difficult to have to bury their dead during a time when only 10 people are being allowed at a funeral service as social distancing is encouraged to try to contain the in-country spread of the new coronavirus.

As of April 7, The Bahamas had 36 confirmed cases, six deaths and 344 people in quarantine. Worldwide there were 1,413,415 confirmed cases and 81,200 deaths.

(As of December 29, The Bahamas had confirmed 7,857 cases and 170 deaths.)

With the country on lockdown last weekend, and a five-day lockdown scheduled to begin tonight at 9 p.m. through Tuesday, April 14 at 5 a.m., this means a second weekend of no burials on Saturday or Sunday. The prime minister has also announced that the country would experience nationwide weekend lockdowns through the end of April, which solidified no weekend funerals for the foreseeable future.

Demeritte’s Funeral Home and Sweeting’s Colonial Mortuary officials said they are seeing a mix of families going ahead with interring their family members on weekdays, while others are opting to wait to bury them.

Last weekend, Demeritte’s had three funerals postponed; this Saturday they’ve had two postponed.

Sweeting’s had four funerals postponed last week Saturday, and have had two postponed for this coming weekend.

Laron Astwood, Demeritte’s Funeral Home managing director, said they’ve had families opting for a weekday service to get it over with.

“We do have a lot more people who would rather hold out, who are just hoping and praying that we can get past this pandemic because they want to have a full celebration for the loved one. So, I would say the majority of people are trying their best to hold off,” said Astwood.

“But some people have gained acceptance and realize we are going through a time and they want to get it over with; they don’t want to keep their loved one above ground much longer. I would say more people would rather wait.”

Astwood said that after the five-day lockdown, funeral home officials would be able to get more of an idea where their clients stand.

“We want to encourage them to have these services, and get their loves ones buried or cremated – but at the same time, we have to be sensitive to their emotion, because of course they’re in a time of mourning,” he said.

“Right now, we have services that have actually opted to postpone until this pandemic has passed [and] we don’t know how long that’s going to be,” said Dominic Sweeting, Sweeting’s Colonial Mortuary vice president. “They really don’t want a graveside funeral with just 10 persons either [and] we’ve also had funerals with 10 persons attending.”

Both funeral home officials said families postponing burying their dead hasn’t just been because of the lockdowns, but also with families having difficulty burying their dead during a time when only 10 people are allowed at the service.

Whatever families decide, Astwood and Sweeting said the mortuaries have the ability to humanely house the bodies until families decide what to do. They both said proper storage comes down to properly preparing and embalming the body.

Astwood said the longest they’ve held a body during his decades at Demeritte’s Funeral Home is six months.

“It was a dispute between certain family members and they had to go to court – probate, et cetera…this was about 10 years or so [ago]. The body was fine. That’s the longest I can recall us holding somebody’s loved one here and then them actually going forward with the funeral.”

He said they’ve also had cases where they’ve housed bodies for over a year, as the family never came back to bury them, and as a result the mortuary had to take on the responsibility of interring the body themselves.

While they don’t charge storage fees for bodies, Astwood said it may be something they may have to consider going forward, to encourage people to move forward with burials.

At Sweeting’s, the longest they’ve held a body before burial was one year.

“A certain family had already paid for a world cruise and their father passed [just before the cruise]. What they did was they went on the vacation, came back a year later and buried their father,” said Sweeting.

Astwood said space could become an issue if people continue to hold out on burying the dead. He refused to disclose how many bodies Demeritte’s is able to humanely store at one time.

“Space is more of an issue than the actual condition of the bodies,” he said.

Demeritte’s has quite a few bodies at this point, but Astwood said they do have bodies housed humanely, and they would not allow it to get to the point where they can’t do so.

Sweeting said owing to their size, they don’t have a problem storing a large number of bodies.

“Holding the bodies is not a problem; the problem is the bodies have to be properly embalmed,” said Sweeting. “Once they’ve been properly embalmed, they can be there for years. When bodies are not properly embalmed – then you have a problem.”

Astwood said they plan to encourage families to try to move forward with some form of burial. He said the preference for people doing weekend burials might change come next week Tuesday after the five-day lockdown.

Sweeting said his funeral home places priority on servicing clients. Whatever a family wants, he said, they give it to them.

“Whether they want to have it on a weekday, whether they want to have a sea burial – at Sweeting’s we service the public, and whatever they want, we give them what they want,” he said.

The new normal funeral homes are operating under, Sweeting said, has made life kind of hectic, but he said they have to deal with the issues as they come. One such problem he said they are currently facing is getting a body out of Abaco to New Providence for preparation for burial.

“Right now, we have a body in Abaco in the clinic in the freezer, which we can’t get out now due to no boats or planes able to move,” he said.

“We have to weather the storm. Like everything else, it is what it is.”

Sweeting also said morticians face challenges because they’re not considered essential workers and people die all the time, and morticians and funeral home owners have to move bodies at all hours.

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Shavaughn Moss

Shavaughn Moss joined The Nassau Guardian as a sports reporter in 1989. She was later promoted to sports editor. Shavaughn covered every major athletic championship from the CARIFTA to Central American and Caribbean Championships through to World Championships and Olympics. Shavaughn was appointed as the Lifestyles Editor a few years later.

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