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In lots of ways, Ebola is nothing like the coronavirus. For starters, Ebola is a lot deadlier. But this pandemic now affecting all of us got me thinking about my work in Liberia, including covering funerals. 

A colleague and I followed a burial team for two days as they traveled to village after village to collect the dead. Often the families would refuse to release the body of their loved one. The new safety protocols, including cremation and burial at distant cemeteries, violated traditional customs and rituals. Families couldn’t wash and dress the body, nor bury it near their home. The new practices, designed to save lives and halt the spread of the ravaging disease, were shredding the social fabric and wounding the souls of the Liberian people.

In Rhode Island, the bereaved are just beginning to face the hurt that social distancing can inflict. Even the initial contact with the funeral director is distant—not the usual handshake—or hug.

Funeral director Edenbach said that communication usually now begins by phone and email. Unlike in Liberia, cremation is an option with an observance or ceremony scheduled later. Edenbach said they work with families to do their best to respect religious rituals.

"We’re still connecting with a priest and having the family gather for a prayer and a chance to say goodbye. But again, with a 10-person limit, that is a different experience. You don’t have the whole family together at the same time."

"Most every family…understands the circumstance and seems to reluctantly comply with what we need to do. And then we all go away, you know, and there you can see this sort of hanging feeling of incompleteness and the lack of closure is, is evident, you know, on their faces, on the expressions. "

Edenbach said they’ve had a number of services in the past week. Several families who’ve come to the funeral home to say goodbye and then they’ve met at the cemetery. He described a recent burial, with the extended family members respecting social distancing.

"We did stand around the grave. And I noted that there was a husband and wife and their child, you know, together. And 25 feet away was another nephew, I believe. And then another 10 feet away on the other side of the grave was a sister and a sister-in-law. The fact that everyone really did stand so far apart was remarkable. Both good and bad. To know that they couldn't and they weren't going to, even a brother and a sister weren't going to, you know, go up and embrace each other after the burial of a family member. I was surprised to see that in that moment people were still considering these guidances and keeping that separation, taking some flowers with them afterwards back to the car. They were only sort of physical, you know symbol of the, of the moment. "

In early March, before social distancing became our new norm, I traveled to Colorado to attend the funeral and military burial of an infantryman who walked in front of me on patrol when I covered his platoon as an embedded journalist in Afghanistan. His soldiers arrived from Kosovo, England, Alaska, Florida and D.C. to honor him and support his wife and their three young children. There were long embraces and tears at the cemetery. We gathered close over those two days. We shared meals, stories and laughs. We raised our glasses. Such comfort, such gatherings are no longer an option, as Edenbach has observed. But he encourages people to consider a gathering or service in the future, when the safety protocols are lifted.

"This is reality and we want to recognize that life and move on in that new life without them here with us. And I think that’s the value in being brave and considering doing something when the time comes and we’re all able to. "

Edenbach recognizes that it may be weeks—or months—before families can hold a larger gathering. He knows that pulling their broader community together to celebrate their loved one’s life is a vital part of ritual and renewal. 

He acknowledges that revisiting their loss and grief will be painful. And he hopes the families will find the courage to do so.