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

Apr 4, 2020
Originally published on April 4, 2020 7:08 pm

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." - Norman J. Williams

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."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The coronavirus has changed so much about our lives, including now how we deal with the rituals of death, social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Large funerals and memorials are banned. Even a simple hug is potentially dangerous. So funeral directors who handle the bodies and help the living through their grief face new challenges. We're joined now by Norman J. Williams. He is director of Unity Funeral Parlors in Chicago's historic Bronzeville neighborhood.

Mr. Williams, thanks so much for being with us.

NORMAN J. WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Well, sir, thank you for making the time. And please help us understand some of the ways in which you've had to change what you do in recent days.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the largest change has to do with being a point of information. When we're contacted, more often now the people who are calling are afraid. First questions they will ask is, can we even have a funeral? What are the restrictions? Can we celebrate our loved one the way was culturally desire for us to do so? Do we have to cremate? Is there a requirement for cremation? And so assessing their fears and reassuring them that all of the cultural and traditional norms of how they would funeralize their loved one have not changed. The only thing that has changed is the issue of not having a collection of more than 10 people in one space. There is a desire to touch and a desire to hug. And we have to almost help each other resist that.

SIMON: Forgive me for putting it this way, but is it safe to hold a public funeral for someone who has died of the coronavirus?

WILLIAMS: The matter of treatment of the body would render the body safe. The concern that we have as technicians is different from a medical health provider. A person who has died is not breathing and they're not moving. However, they are being moved by us. And so there are some physical things that we can do to the body that can actually create an environment of droplets or mists that we have to protect ourselves from. So in our case, we are concerned about not transmitting the virus from the deceased person to those of us who are working on the deceased person.

SIMON: It must be hard, Mr. Williams, even for someone in your line of work to see people say goodbye to a loved one and not be able to have their arms around each other and hug each other.

WILLIAMS: What is really hard is the separation and the not being able to follow your instincts. Having been running a family business as I have over the course of a business as 80 years - I've been here half of that - there are families with whom we have served before. And you have been someone who has helped them before. And they recognize you. You recognize them. The first thing you want to do is reach out to them and to touch them. And we have to help each other learn a behavior of social distancing for a while.

SIMON: You strike me, Mr. Williams, as a both a kind and wise man. And I just wonder, what would you like to tell people now? What should we keep in our minds and hearts during this period?

WILLIAMS: I think the things we learned from our parents and grandparents are things that, innocently enough, are proving themselves to be so wise. We're dealing with a virus that hygiene that almost all of us take for granted is very effective. 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 now. Being concerned and not letting days pass before you reach out to people that are in your extended family if not through a phone call, through a text - perhaps now is when you want to be known and known where you are, known that someone is going to kind of check in with you and be there to miss you if they don't hear from you. 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 because at the end of the day, no matter how individual we are, we do want to belong to somebody.

SIMON: Norman J. Williams is the director of Unity Funeral Parlors in Chicago.

Thanks so much, Mr. Williams.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you for having me. And be well, and be safe.

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