Funerals by Zoom: How COVID-19 is changing death, as well as life, in Canada

Fr. Dominic Barber stood on the sidewalk, outside the care home in Markham, Ont., and shouted the prayers through the glass. “God have mercy,” he yelled, his hand held up in a blessing.

He could not lay hands on the woman, as she neared death. He could not anoint her with oils. All he could do instead was stand with her daughter outside her closed window and pray. “Look kindly on your servant,” he yelled, “who has grown weak under the burden of years.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every aspect of every life in this country. But for many Catholics, and not just those struck down by the disease, it is shaping the way they die, too.

With long-term care homes closed to outsiders, hospitals on quarantine, and the entire country locked in social isolation, the Catholic sacrament popularly known as Last Rites has become all but impossible to give.

Catholic priests across Canada have found themselves unable to be with and anoint their dying parishioners in their final days. Instead, they are making due with video counselling, phone prayers and iPad blessings.

“My telephone ministry has exploded,” said Fr. Michael McGourty, a priest in Toronto. Every day, he prays a decade of the rosary with one dying parishioner in palliative care.

It isn’t perfect. “You can’t be present in the same way you can be when you look someone in the eyes,” McGourty said. On the phone, they might hear his voice crack. But they can’t see his tears.

In Charlottetown, the Catholic dioceses has stopped administering the rite officially known as the Sacrament of the Sick entirely. Instead, they now have a rotation of priests on call to deliver final prayers over the phone.

Even before the lockdown reached its current phase, though, the pandemic had already changed the way Last Rites were being delivered in Canada.

My telephone ministry has exploded

The last time Fr. Paul Lundrigan, who presides over churches in Flatrock, Pouch Bay, and Torbay, Newfoundland and Labrador, delivered the rite, he wore a face mask and medical gloves. (His church custodian had socked away a large supply before the pandemic began.)

Lundrigan got a call from a parishioner whose husband was dying at home. He went to the house and found several members of the extended family already there. “I knocked on the door and moved back and when they opened the door, they welcomed me. ‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘Can you guys move back?’ And they did.”

Inside the house, Lundrigan found the dying man propped up on the couch. He asked the family to stand against a wall. He stood six feet from the dying man and prayed with him. Then, his gloves on, he anointed the man’s forehead and hands with holy oil. “I said the prayers over him and moved back again,” Lundrigan said. “I was only close to him for a few seconds to do that.”

Catholics are obviously not the only faith whose death rites have been affected by the pandemic. Nor are the final prayers and blessings the only aspect of death and dying that has changed.

A priest wearing a face mask checks a book of funeral rites as he gives the last blessing to a deceased person during a funeral ceremony in Bolgare, Lombardy.

Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

Fr. Francis McKee, a Catholic priest in Montreal, is scheduled to do a funeral over the video chatting app Zoom on Thursday. Family members are planning to join in from as far away as Vancouver and Texas. “We’ve got six or seven people Zooming in from who knows where,” McKee said. “I’m going to a liturgy right in my little altar here. The kids will be doing the readings for the Mass. … It’s going to be quite something.”

Many families are now opting to cremate their loved ones and putting off formal ceremonies until after the lockdown is over. But Lundrigran said that wasn’t an option for one of his parishioners who died unexpectedly at the end of March after a heart attack.

“He had made clear a few years ago that the idea of cremation scared him. It just creeped him out,” said Lundrigan. So even though only five people would be allowed at the gravesite for the funeral, the family decided to bury him now anyway.

The family had to put the ceremony off a day because Lundrigan himself was in isolation after a large COVID-19 outbreak at another funeral. When he was cleared, he presided over the tiny ceremony at the cemetery in Flatrock, a hamlet outside St. John’s.

I said the prayers over him and moved back again

Only the dead man’s wife, two of his children, and his daughter-in-law were allowed at the gravesite. His third child, a daughter in her 20s, had to watch over FaceTime from Ottawa.

As the family approached the cemetery, though, they found the streets of Flatrock, a village of 1,400 people, lined with cars. As the hearse drove by, each car blinked its lights in solidarity. There were at least 70 cars there when Lundrigan arrived. He thinks there were probably 100 by the time the funeral was done.

The other villagers couldn’t stand with the family at the grave. But they wanted them to know they weren’t alone.

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