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'Let Us Stay In Touch With Those That We Love.' A Funeral Director's Lessons For Life

Norman J. Williams, the president and funeral director of Unity Funeral Parlors in Chicago.
Bill Healy
Norman J. Williams, the president and funeral director of Unity Funeral Parlors in Chicago.

The coronavirus has changed so much about our lives. It has also changed how we deal with death.

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have essentially brought an end to large funerals and memorials where people can share their grief. A brief hug to comfort a mourner is potentially lethal.

"We're all challenged by how to navigate emotional needs while exercising the right precautions," says Norman J. Williams, the long-time director of Unity Funeral Parlors in Chicago.

Williams' family started their funeral company in 1937. They have seen many of the same families through some of their darkest times.

Their job is not just to bury the dead but to comfort the living — now from a six-foot distance.

"The first thing you want to do is reach out to them and to touch them," says Williams.

But the coronavirus, which has now claimed more than 7,100 lives in the U.S., has changed all this.

"At the end of the day, no matter how individual we are, we do want to belong to somebody."

Funerals and memorial services have been sharply curtailed. Earlier this week, the National Funeral Directors Association recommended that funerals be limited to no more than 10 of the decedent's immediate family members.

Some churches and synagogues are offering video streaming of services. But funeral homes have been slower to adapt to the new technology. Besides, together but apart is the very antithesis for people seeking solace from friends and family.

"Grief is usually a very intimate and physical process that's done in groups," says Williams. And at the very moment people rely most on the traditions of their religious faith, or the healing of friends nearby, the room is largely empty.

Don't wait

"Now is a time where people actually need to have the discipline of keeping in regular contact," he says.

Williams' mother and her friends, as they grew older and there were fewer of them left, developed a discipline of calling one another every day, even if just for a few minutes.

He worries now about the elderly survivors mourning their friends and partners who have died from COVID-19. They have likely been exposed to the virus.

Many are now left on their own, just as everyone is expected to practice social isolation. They need to be on someone's radar.

Williams cautions those who think they are, and will remain, untouched by the virus: Don't let "days pass before you reach out to people that are in your extended family," Williams says, "if not through a phone call, through a text."

That discipline really matters, says Williams, and so do the many little traditions that we learned as children.

"The things we learned from our parents and grandparents are things that innocently enough are proving themselves to be so wise," says Williams. "Every child that has been outside playing whose mother or grandmother says, 'Wash your hands before you come to the table,' can remember that voice."

"So if there was ever a time for us to kind of remember the things that we learned as children, that no matter how independent you want to be, perhaps now is also a time when you want to be known and ... that someone's going to kind of check in with you and and be there to miss you if they don't hear from you."

While we have to isolate ourselves to slow the spread of the coronavirus, this is not the time to be alone, says Williams.

"Sometimes it's good for people to know where you're going and how long you're going to be out and when you're expected back," he advises, "because at the end of the day, no matter how individual we are, we do want to belong to somebody."

"Let us stay in touch with those that we love. Let us stay in touch."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martha Ann Overland