Grief without hugs, tears without comfort; Covid-19 is disrupting the Chamoru funeral traditions
In Chamoru culture, a funeral service is both a celebration of the deceased’s life and mourning of their death. The Chamoru people believe the deceased’s spirit lives on after death.
People traditionally gather at the wake, consoling the family who lost their loved one, comforting their grief with hugs, offering them words of remembrance and respect. The nine-day rosary for the dead is an integral part of the tradition. The family serves light refreshments on the first eight nights and then a dinner on the ninth night for everyone who participated.
The Covid-19 pandemic has interfered with these practices and traditions, depriving families of a chance to promptly say their proper goodbyes to their deceased loved ones.
So was the case of the family of a deceased Navy veteran. Local resident Carl Borja Nelson said his cousin John* died of a heart ailment on Sept. 4. Due to public health emergency mandates affecting funeral scheduling, the funeral home didn’t receive John’s body until Sept. 17.
“When they originally said there was no family viewing, it was disappointing. On Guam, that's a sacred time, especially, for immediate family, extended family and close friends to see a loved one's body soon after they've passed,” Nelson said. “It’s a part of our grieving process and it's emotionally painful not to be allowed to do so.”
Partly because of repercussions from government mandates affecting funerals, the family had to wait almost a month before they could finally lay John’s body to rest. The long wait affected the condition of John’s body.
“When his sister found John's body on Sept. 5, it didn't show any signs of even minor decomposition. She said John's body was still soft to the touch and still had color. She said his body looked like he'd only fainted,” Nelson said.
At John’s funeral on Oct. 3, his sister was surprised and disappointed when the casket was first opened because "it didn’t look like him," Nelson said.
The body looked darker and puffier than normal. “After I viewed the body I had to agree,” Nelson said.
“Another thing I noticed was a very strong smell of something I thought was like a strong perfume sprayed in the casket. I've been to a lot of funerals over the years but I've never noticed that smell before. Someone later explained that it was the smell of embalming fluid."
After funeral home employees picked up the body on Sept. 17, a representative contacted John's sister to notify her that there were signs of some minor decomposition setting in when they received the body from the Guam Memorial Hospital.
“These kinds of things didn't happen unless there was an unavoidable circumstance delaying discovery of the body,” Nelson said. “But she said she discovered the body before that happened. And then the body was in the morgue for almost two weeks before they finally released it to the funeral home.”
The Mass on All Souls Day, which is formally known as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, can be followed through the Agana parish website/Facebook at Facebook.com/aganacathedral and Website aganacathedral.org.
Parishes will celebrate Masses at their churches and include prayers of intentions for the dearly departed on All Souls Day. However, Masses will not be celebrated at the cemeteries this year on All Souls Day in line with a joint announcement by directors of Catholic and private cemeteries on Oct. 7.
To safeguard against the spread of COVID-19 the directors announced that their cemeteries will be closed on All Souls Day weekend, Sat. Oct. 31 to Mon., Nov. 2.
Although GMH focuses its resources on Covid-19 patients, Nelson does not believe that there was any intentional negligence on GMH’s part. “These are some unintended consequences—some collateral damage—due to the mandates, which is very concerning,” he added.
“The compounding effect of the policies along with the Covid-19 patients, as well as other patients going to the hospital, was, I'm sure, overwhelming; but the morgue is a separate department. I don’t know how higher volume of patients would affect the handling of bodies in the morgue,” Nelson said. “The hospital has gone through extended periods where hospital beds and rooms were maxed out. But I didn’t use to see things like this happen until the (public health emergency) mandates happened.”
Despite the smaller than usual attendance and the lack of hugs and refreshments at the funeral, Nelson appreciated seeing his relatives at the viewing because family gatherings are much rarer these days.
“I understand about physical distancing, especially if you have family members who are vulnerable,”
Nelson said. “I have a 91-year-old auntie, my mom’s last surviving sister. We try to keep her safe by distancing and quarantining as much as possible. She went to the funeral, but we didn’t hug her. We distanced ourselves from her out of concern for her safety. That was our choice as a family. We understand that she's in the most vulnerable group, the elderly."
Nelson said he does not blame GMH or the funeral home for the condition of his cousin’s body; but he wishes that policymakers would be more compassionate to immediate family members who are grieving during the crisis.
“My comments aren't aimed at the hospital staff. They're aimed at the repercussions of the policies. I know GMH staff are under pressure; but at the same time, I think there needs to be some middle ground to allow especially immediate family members to pay their final farewells to people they've known and loved often for decades,” he said. “This is a precious time to say their last goodbyes. It's a sacred time for local families. It’s concerning that this sacred time is being denied to us.”
The pandemic is also disrupting the observance of All Souls Day this year. In order to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, Catholic and private cemeteries will be closed on All Souls’ Day weekend. The Archdiocese of Agana has also canceled all traditional All Souls’ Day Masses at all cemeteries. Instead, the Agana Cathedral – Basilica will offer a live streamed Mass.
In humble remembrance of those who have passed away as a result of Covid-19, Archbishop Michael J. Byrnes will bless 79 comfort crosses on the altar during the 12 noon All Souls Day Mass Monday, Nov. 2, at the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica in Hagatña, the Archdiocese of Agana announced.
Made of olive wood from the Holy Land, each comfort cross may be picked up by a family representative after Mass. If you are a family member, please identify yourself after Mass so that we may entrust the cross to you in remembrance of your loved one. One cross for each family of those who died of Covid-19.
*The name of the deceased has been changed upon request of the family.
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