‘Grief doesn’t change’

Funerals adapt to pandemic restrictions.

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April 6, 2020 - 9:59 AM

Earl Riebel’s funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church was livestreamed because of coronavirus restrictions. Only Riebel’s seven children could attend the service. Photo by YouTube

Under normal circumstances, a funeral for a member of the Riebel family would draw up to 200 mourners. The cathedral at St. John’s Catholic Church would echo with songs and scripture. 

Longtime LaHarpe resident Earl Riebel may have expected as much. Instead, only seven people were in the church to commemorate his passing.

Earl Riebel

Riebel came from a family with 13 children. He served with the Army during the Korean War. He was well-known in the community, having worked at local cement plants for 35 years, raising cattle, hauling hay and playing horseshoes.

But when he died March 23, the state’s social distancing guidelines to avoid spreading COVID-19 limited attendance to his seven children.

The siblings grieved alone, unable to console each other with hugs and thoughtful touches. 

Outside the church, a small number of their spouses and children watched a livestream video of the service on phones or tablets. A few minor glitches interrupted the audio, as it was only Feuerborn Family Funeral Home’s second virtual funeral service, but at least they could watch.

After the service, Earl’s four sons and the funeral director served as impromptu pallbearers. Daughter Virginia Utley saw an empty handle and jumped in to lift the casket into the hearse.

At graveside, the children dutifully spaced themselves to bear final witness to their father’s passing. Extended family members stood farther back.

Then they departed with nary a handshake or hug. There was no funeral dinner, during which they would have shared memories, laughed and cried.

Instead, they just went home.

THERE’S A reason for funerals, said Reuben Feuerborn, funeral director. 

A funeral or memorial service is part of the healing process when friends and family gather to celebrate the life of a loved one

“It’s imperative that we acknowledge that one of our own has undergone this permanent transformation. Whatever your religious beliefs, they are permanently changed. They are no longer with us,” Feuerborn said. “Without that acknowledgement, it’s as if they just got in the car and never came back.”

A service helps loved ones accept the reality of death.

“Whether you do a casket service with a viewing or a memorial service with an urn, there is a ton of power in that gathering,” Feuerborn said. “It gives everyone permission to hug you. It gives you permission to cry. It gives you permission to grieve.”

But the COVID-19 pandemic and the response to it — social distancing guidelines that keep people at least 6 feet apart and prohibitions on gatherings of more than 10 people — require an adjustment to the traditional funeral service. 

Funeral homes are postponing services, or limiting the number of mourners. As with the Riebel funeral, they may livestream the service online or offer a video for later viewing. If a visitation is offered, only a small number of family members are present to receive friends, and visitors are limited to only a few at a time. 

You can postpone a funeral service, Feuerborn said, but you can’t necessarily postpone grief.

“Grief doesn’t change because of an executive order,” he said.

Healing takes time, he said.

“If you cut your arm, you get stitches or a Band-Aid. That’s a mechanism to promote healing, much like a memorial or a graveside service. Without those mechanisms, healing can be much more difficult. The scars don’t heal the same.

“Those are the reasons we do what we do.”

EARL RIEBEL’S family celebrated his 91st birthday on March 23. Because of restrictions caused by the coronavirus, they were unable to gather with him at a Chanute nursing home where he was staying after being hospitalized for heart problems.

His children, their spouses and their children stood outside his window, held up a sign and sang “Happy Birthday.” He motioned for them to come inside, and was frustrated when only one person at a time could do so, according to his daughter, Virginia Utley, and daughter-in-law, Sherrie Riebel.

“Under normal circumstances, we’d have given him a sugar-free cake, sang to him, given him a hug,” Sherrie said. “Not even his kids could do that.”

“You could tell it just knocked the wind out of Dad’s sails,” Virginia said. “He was so lonely for his family. I don’t think he understood.”

Earl died a few hours later.

THE SERVICE wasn’t the same, either, Virginia said. 

The plans for Earl’s funeral had been in place for years. The family had already said goodbye to his wife, Marjorie, in 2014 with a large, traditional Catholic funeral at St. John’s.

But COVID-19 complicated those carefully made plans. 

“I think he would have been disappointed,” Virginia said when asked what Earl might have thought of the situation. “But I think he would have been pleased we still got to do it in the church.”

She also expressed gratitude to the Feuerborn Family Funeral Home staff who worked to accommodate the family as best they could. The family may have a memorial later, after the health threats from the pandemic have passed.

The Riebel family didn’t publicize the viewing and visitation, but a few friends and family paid their respects, no more than 10 at a time.

“That part was a little awkward,” Virginia said.

They said the Rosary the night before the funeral, with only Earl’s children present. The same restrictions applied to the actual funeral service. 

“It kind of felt like we were cheating the relatives,” Virginia said. “I know a lot of them wanted to come.”

But those who weren’t able to be in the church were understanding, Sherrie said. She waited outside the church and watched online while her husband, Joseph, was inside.

“It strikes you hard at first. You get mad, then you get sad again,” Sherrie said. “It was hard not to be able to console each other, not to hug or even touch. But if that’s what it takes to keep everyone safe, then so be it.”

TECHNOLOGY makes it possible to help families through this difficult time, Feuerborn said.

The Feuerborn funeral home has recorded funerals for years, so live-streaming wasn’t difficult to adapt. The “behind-the-scenes” processes also required only minor adjustments, as vendors typically offer online and paperless services, including the death certificate. Staff are now working from home.

Feuerborn, which has offices in Iola and Garnett, also posts memorials on its website and Facebook page, allowing friends and family to post condolences or share memories online. 

“We live in an amazing time, with the tools that are available to us now,” he said.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order against public gathering makes an exemption for funeral homes, but local funeral directors say they are trying to restrict gatherings as much as possible.

Rick Brock, owner of Countryside Funeral based in Chanute, said the restrictions have been difficult, especially for larger families when trying to make arrangements, but most are understanding.

“They are very gracious. They are disappointed, but understanding,” Brock said. “We just try to get them through this bad situation the best we can.” 

Lane Jones, owner of Campbell Funeral Home in Yates Center, said he limits visitations to five people at a time. Like health care facilities, staff will screen visitors for fever, symptoms and travel to areas with known COVID-19 cases. 

“We do the best we can to accommodate the families and still try to keep everyone safe, including our staff,” he said. “We believe the person deserves the funeral service they’re accustomed to having. We still want to give the friends and family a chance to come together and support each other, to honor a life well-lived and share memories. It’s a little more difficult to do that on the phone or video conference. 

“I feel bad for the families and for society as a whole, to not be able to do what we’re accustomed to and would prefer to do.”

FEUERBORN’S grandmother died in November, before the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s grateful he was able to spend time with her in the nursing home, where employees he didn’t know would give him a hug as he walked down the hallway.

His experience makes him appreciate, even more, what others are missing.

“I just feel awful for anyone who loses someone right now,” he said. “There’s nothing harder for me than to not be able to give someone a hug or shake their hand when I go pick up their loved one. For me and my staff, we may not get those touch points, but we’re very intentional with our words, because that’s all we can offer right now.”

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