Many Ohioans are grieving differently after the COVID-19 pandemic caused thousands of 'excess deaths'
The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything - even how we grieve in Northeast Ohio. The totality of loss is now coming into view.
Nearly 41,000 more Ohioans died over the past two years than expected under normal circumstances, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The increase in deaths came during a time when COVID-19 restrictions kept many families from having funeral services and that changed how they grieved.
Margaret Arthur of Broadview Heights, Ohio, said she lost a nephew unexpectedly during the pandemic.
“All of a sudden I got a phone call. ‘Jimmy’s dead.’ I said, ‘What?’ It just – It just tore me up,” she said.
There was no funeral service which made it difficult to accept his death and the deaths of others who weren’t memorialized during the pandemic, Arthur said.
“It’s just like they just disappeared,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
COVID-19 interrupted our lives and our grieving process
April of 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine limited the number of people who could gather in-person to 10. It was tough and even scary to plan any event and many families skipped traditional ceremonies.
“COVID... interrupted our lives in absolutely infinite ways,” said Rev. Amy Greene of the Center for Spiritual Care at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Grief is just one of the things that it interrupted,” Rev. Greene said.
On a recent sunny morning, Rev. E.T. Caviness ministered to a bereaved family during a service at Watson’s Funeral home on Cleveland’s East Side. Caviness, who has been preaching in Cleveland for more than 60 years at Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, has guided many families through periods of loss and grief.
While many churches closed in the early days of the pandemic, Greater Abyssinia took great pains to safely open the church for funerals during the pandemic, Caviness said.
“We disinfect the church every time. We go through every pew. We sanitize,” he said.
Although they may be in a familiar space, funerals at Greater Abyssinia were very different during the age of COVID. Masks, vaccines and social distancing were in. Hugging and shaking hands were out.
“We don’t hug as we ordinarily do,” Caviness said. “We love, but we don’t hug.”
The large number of deaths also changed the funeral business
The surge in death from COVID-19 has also placed sometimes unexpected financial strain on families and changed the funeral industry itself, according to industry experts.
Those “excess deaths” have hit Black communities especially hard, forcing more people to deal with the loss of a loved one and navigate the funeral industry during a period of upheaval, said Marcella Boyd Cox, vice president, E.F. Boyd and Son Funeral Home.
Services at funeral homes have also changed drastically because of the pandemic, said a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Web streaming and online planning sessions have become commonplace, and the events themselves are different.
Now that the pandemic has seemingly paused, funeral service providers in the Cleveland area are seeing an increase in the number of families seeking traditional burials and memorials.
The chairs at E.F. Boyd and Son Funeral Homeon East 89 th Street in Cleveland are usually set out for people to sit shoulder to shoulder. Now they’re spread out, said Boyd Cox.
“The traditional sitting with and talking to people -- they just miss that. That's a big part of services," she said.
Beyond the behavioral changes, the industry experts say the pandemic has changed the funeral business itself: Cremation has become more popular because it allows families to delay service until they feel safe to gather and, on average, it costs less than a casket burial.
In areas of the country that became COVID-19 hotspots the majority of people who died were cremated, according to the NFDA, which estimates that the majority of people will choose cremation in all 50 states by 2035.
Because so many more people than normal have died, more families have had to plan and pay for funerals, which cost on average about $7,800 for a viewing and burial, according to the NFDA.
Often life insurance covers the bill, but in some cases, funeral homes and cemeteries refer families to financing companies to cover costs. Other times, funeral homes, which are mostly family businesses themselves, work with those who struggle to pay to memorialize a loved one, Boyd Cox said.
“People just don't have eight, nine, ten thousand dollars underneath the mattress or where ever to just payout for a funeral service,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first to bring mass grief and loss
We aren’t the first generation to have our lives cut short and rituals disrupted by a plague. In section 22 at Lake View Cemetery there are about 200 headstones of people who died during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Dozens of people a day were being brought to Lake View at that time, said Katharine Goss, president and CEO of the cemetery.
“There are single graves right next to each other that clearly are for people who aren’t related,” she said. “The last names could be Italian, Eastern European, Irish, Russian whatever. It was one after another after another that was being buried here.”
The most recent pandemic also brought change to the more than the 150-year-old cemetery, which was designed with rolling hills, paths and a tree canopy to provide a respite and comfort for the living, Goss said. More people have been walking the gardens, including employees from nearby hospitals weary from caring for the sick and dying especially during the pandemic’s peaks.
Like those who buried their loved ones during the Spanish Flu pandemic, many more people than normal are grieving. Rev. Greene said the key to moving forward is kindness and compassion and the willingness to let the grief come.
“I no longer say, ‘May that which doesn’t kill me make me stronger.’ Now I say, ‘May that which doesn’t kill me make me kinder,’” she said. “So I think if we can just be kind to ourselves and then we can be kind to be the next person and the next person and the next person because they too have had a loss.”
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