Mourning a loved one during the Coronavirus pandemic

Mourning a loved one during the Coronavirus pandemic
Greg Williams of Integrity Funeral Home & Cremations adjusts a camera to use during a Zoom funeral.

When it comes to mourning the death of a loved one, “there is no textbook way to grieve,” said Jody Brandenburg, president of Hardage Giddens Funeral Homes and Cemeteries, which owns 10 funeral facilities including Hardage-Giddens Riverside Memorial Park & Funeral Home and Hardage-Giddens Oaklawn Chapel & Cemetery in San Marco. His words perfectly describe what funeral directors in Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods have encountered during the recent Coronavirus pandemic.

 During a time when residents are advised to wear masks, use hand sanitizer, and remain six feet away from each other, when death comes, surviving families have discovered the art of mourning has greatly changed as well.

Many families have opted to hold graveside committal services, which have been limited to only 10 mourners, while postponing memorial and celebration of life services until the stay-at-home orders and restrictions on group gatherings are lifted, according to Brandenburg and two other funeral directors in Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods – Cameron Naugle, owner of Naugle Funeral Homes & Cremation Services in San Marco and Riverside, and Greg Williams of Integrity Funeral Homes and Cremation Services in Riverside and Fernandina Beach. 

Funeral homes also have adopted Zoom, social media, and other on-line technologies to conduct funerals, share messages of condolence, and store historical information into perpetuity.  

During the Coronavirus crisis, funeral services are considered essential businesses by state officials. When state and city leaders at first issued stay-at-home orders, funerals and committal services at cemeteries were limited to only 10 mourners. With the issuance of phase 1 by governmental officials in May, as a way to normalize business on the First Coast, funeral guidelines are “umlimited”  as long as they adhere to social distancing measures are maintained, said Brandenburg.

Prior to the change that occurred in mid May, Naugle said he measured the seating of his chapel and determined he could seat two mourners on either end of the front row, one in the middle of the second row, two in the third row, one in the fourth, and so forth in order to keep everyone six feet apart. “That way we can seat 32 people in our chapel safely. I figure that is a good compromise,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hardage-Giddens tried to keep its numbers at graveside committal services low, while stressing social distancing, Brandenburg said. “If there are more that want to come, they can drive by in their cars and roll their windows down so they can feel apart of it,” he said.

Mourners practice social distancing during a funeral service in the Naugle Schnauss Funeral Home’s Riverside chapel.
Mourners practice social distancing during a funeral service in the Naugle Schnauss Funeral Home’s Riverside chapel.

As of this writing, Naugle said most cemeteries continued to limit graveside mourners to 10, and Jacksonville’s National Cemetery had stopped all services completely. “The casket can go to the National Cemetery, but it’s only drop-offs, no families are allowed, and no honors are rendered,” he said. “It’s kind of disappointing, but that’s what they’ve decided to do. They are promising to do make-up services at later dates.”

The restriction to only 10 graveside mourners caused some families to become more creative. “I did a service at Jacksonville Memory Gardens and one sister showed up with her 10 people and she did a service, and after she left, her sister came with her preacher and her 10 people and did a service at the graveside for 10 minutes. Then a third sister came, and she did a service at the graveside for 20 minutes with her people. Something like this was never a thing before,” Naugle said. “We try to find something that works for the family as well as the cemetery.”

The use of Zoom, an online meeting platform, has allowed more family members to participate in the ceremony while at home, said Naugle, who recalled such a graveside service at Evergreen Cemetery. “I brought my cell phone and tripod, and we set it up off to the side. We had 15 additional family members join 10 minutes before the service,” he said, noting a family member also recorded it. “After the service, we uploaded the recording to our website so those who couldn’t make the Zoom meeting or were in a different time zone could watch it.”

Families are satisfied with Zoom because communication goes two ways, he said. “Some family members wanted to talk. I know it was strange that the cell phone was talking, but they got to talk, and that was important,” Naugle said, noting it is a way for family members to give testimonials. 

As of this writing, Integrity Funeral Homes had not yet conducted a Zoom funeral but has the capacity to do so, Williams said, adding that before the pandemic he had livestreamed services overseas so family members could experience celebrations in real time. 

Hardage-Giddens also livestreams services to worldwide locations and provides copies of the service afterward. “It is almost like an online guest book,” said Brandenburg, whose company also uses Making Everlasting Memories (, an online memorial website, where obituaries, stories, and information can be placed in perpetuity.

Brandenburg, Naugle and Williams said the pandemic has not caused their companies to change the way they prepare bodies. All staff wear PPEs (personal protection equipment—gowns, masks, face shields and gloves) during preparation.  “Since the HIV crisis years ago, everybody has changed their procedures,” Brandenburg said. “We have universal precautions in place. This is nothing new for us because we’ve been up to speed,” he said, noting Hardage-Giddens also has an additional set of universal precautions it abides by.

Families with loved ones who die of COVID-19 often opt for cremation or direct burial, Naugle said. “We had one COVID case that was a direct burial. We took the body, which comes in two very thick pouches (body bags) from the hospital, and we transferred it directly to a casket and buried it,” he said. “That’s probably the safer way to handle it if the family chooses burial. I haven’t seen anything that says you can’t embalm it, or that after it’s been embalmed that you can’t let people view it, but for safety’s sake and erring on the side of things we don’t know, we’ve been recommending direct burial.” As of this writing, his funeral home had only handled six COVID cases, he said.

Although his funeral home had not yet served any COVID cases, his team is prepared to when and if the time comes, Williams said. “We know exactly what to do to squash the virus.”

All three men mentioned social distancing has been rough on client families during the pandemic. 

“I’m a Southern Baptist. We hug, we shake hands, and we hug again,” said Williams. “It’s devastating, especially for families who want a hug and can’t get it.”  

Naugle agreed. “We are a touchy, feely industry, and sometimes you want to give people hugs because you feel bad for them. The way it is today, you are not able to,” he said. “It has been tough. I had a family member who looked like she was going to cry. I asked her, ‘what’s wrong?’ and she said she just wanted to hug her brother but realized she shouldn’t at this time. It’s just a sign of the times.”

Chairs are set up for social distancing at Legacy Lodge, a gathering place on Hardage-Giddens Oak Lawn property where the facility that normally might house 160 is restricted to 40 during the time of COVID-19.
Chairs are set up for social distancing at Legacy Lodge, a gathering place on Hardage-Giddens Oak Lawn property where the facility that normally might house 160 is restricted to 40 during the time of COVID-19.

“Many people will be planning life-story celebrations after this is over so they can have the strength of having people around them,” said Brandenburg, noting each Hardage-Giddens location has a special calendar reserved to schedule future memorial services. “Even with the delay, celebrations are important. Although this is unprecedented, I think people need the recognition and celebration of a life well lived. It is important to recognize the person who has passed away, and it doesn’t just have to be the most prominent person in Jacksonville. Everybody is comforted by being surrounded by friends. There is no time limit on it.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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