Story and gallery by ALEXIS PERNO
When you walk into the small front lobby of the Serenicare Funeral Home, the first thing you notice is the pleasant yellow walls.
The second would be the dark wooden desks opposite each other.
The third is a small, yet striking detail; next to the ubiquitous tissue box is a new fixture — a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Francis Mortensen, Serenicare’s funeral director of seven years, is wearing a blue surgical mask as he speaks to a client on the phone, mid-interview. I pause the recording as he talks. When he finishes, I smile, thinking back to his earlier comments about the upcoming weekend.
“You weren’t kidding when you said a funeral director’s job never ends.”
Mortensen laughs in agreement, and we speak for 20 more minutes.
The pandemic hasn’t changed Serenicare’s process all that much: when a death occurs, the home, located at 2281 S. West Temple, is notified by a hospice nurse or social worker. Then, the home contacts the family to learn their desires and arrange pickup of their loved one. A time to meet with the family is set, and plans for a service are put into motion.
However, this face-to-face collection of information between Mortensen and a grieving family has been replaced with online forms, emails and phone calls. Precautions are taken that weren’t before. Instead of simply straightening up the meeting table for his next client, Mortensen spends time sanitizing before returning the ever-present tissue box and hand sanitizer to their respective places.
“We do have to have different precautions,” he said. “When we are going to a facility, I used to never ask, ‘Do they have an infectious disease?’”
Early in the pandemic, Mortensen and his team would suit up in complete protection gear to even step foot into a room with a deceased person, regardless of if the person had died from COVID-19. Now, greater precautions are only taken if the deceased was positive at the time of death.
“That comes down to not only a time thing and a stress thing but also a financial thing because of purchasing all that protective equipment,” he said. “It’s just going to be thrown away.”
Although the death rate in Utah has remained low compared to hard-hit places — 773 deaths as of Nov. 20 compared to New York City’s 19,517 — changes still have made themselves known.
With the sudden lack of in-person, open-casket viewings, embalming is not taking place. To comply with social distancing guidelines and church closures, funeral services have been replaced by graveside services at the cemetery. More families have begun to choose cremation, causing changes in the revenue stream.
But for Serenicare, Zoom funerals have worked well. During one service with over 100 attendees, Mortensen was completely alone in Serenicare — save for the casket.
“All of the speakers did their talk from a different location, so [Zoom] worked very well in that aspect. It was different not having anybody here,” Mortensen said.
Preschool teacher Shanna Beesley lost her mother, JoAnn Peirce, on June 15, 2020. While her mother’s death was unrelated to COVID-19, the family decided to limit the number of people who could attend the service to just Beesley’s siblings, their children and Peirce’s siblings.
As Beesley and her family met at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy, Utah, over 100 people attended virtually through a Zoom organized by the family.
“I think it’s been harder for sure to grieve but you know what, at least we have our family,” she said in a Zoom interview. “That’s No. 1. We had our family there, and so that was helpful.”
Despite some technical difficulties, Beesley said attendees were thankful to be present, albeit virtually.
In Peirce’s obituary, it’s written that “family was her most priceless treasure.” When things become overwhelming for her daughter, family ensures perseverance as well.
“I hold on to all the great things that [my mother] did for me and the impact she made here,” Beesley said. “The memories and love of family, supportive family, that’s what I hold on to.”
The stark necessity of social distancing has made mourning into a greater challenge, according to Francis Mortensen. For some, it isn’t enough to be notified of a death. Seeing a loved one for the last time at a viewing can be a vital step for someone to work through their grieving process.
“Death is the definite factor in all of our lives, and understanding that, some people try to deny it to the greatest extent,” Mortensen said. “Those tend to be those that have the greatest difficulty feeling [grief] in different aspects.”
Jessica Koth, the director of public relations for the National Funeral Directors Association, agrees that grief is a powerful force.
“We often think that we can move on from a death and find closure, implying there is some endpoint where grief ends,” Koth said in an email interview. “However, as anyone who has lost someone they are close to, you never quite get over their death and your life is changed because they are no longer there.”
While the Wisconsin-headquartered NFDA has worked with the federal government to plan for mass-fatality circumstances for over a decade, the pandemic has been the biggest challenge to date. Calls increased as the organization worked with federal agencies to provide personal protection equipment and information to funeral homes across the nation.
Koth said she couldn’t imagine what the experience had been like, especially considering that the majority of funeral homes in the United States are small and family-operated.
“Day in and day out, funeral directors everywhere continued to serve families with the same level of care and compassion they always exhibit; they never missed a step,” she said. “I have never been prouder to work at NFDA than I have these last few months.”
Funeral and memorial gatherings are often crucial parts of both the mourning and healing process. Grief becomes even more complicated now as individuals also experience non-death losses.
“Some may be concrete and easy to identify, such as financial or employment insecurity and lack of social interaction,” Koth said. “Other losses might be harder to recognize, like no longer having the comfort of our normal routines or freedom of movement in public spaces.”
As grief evolves with the times, one constant remains: the image of the hand sanitizer next to the tissue box. But no matter the environment, the process toward healing can — must — begin somewhere.