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El Paso religious funeral practices dramatically impacted by COVID-19

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For the hundreds of El Pasoans grieving the death of a loved one to COVID-19, even the practice of mourning has been dramatically reconfigured because of the pandemic. 

El Paso religious leaders expressed sadness over the added difficulty that grief-stricken El Pasoans face when trying to pay tribute to recently departed friends and family, where large funeral gatherings can become high risk events themselves, creating dangerous possibilities for further loss. 

Bishop Mark Seitz

“My heart is breaking for you,” said El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz to the countless El Pasoans who have recently lost someone they love to COVID-19. “It is so, so hard, when not only are we experiencing these losses that seem so unnecessary because of the spread of this virus, but you can’t even say good-bye in the way that you would have in the past.”

The El Paso Catholic Diocese has stopped holding funeral Masses until the surging pandemic subsides, and so for many grieving El Paso Catholics, they are limited to an abbreviated graveside service with a maximum of 10 people present. The dioceses has continued to offer last rites to gravely ill COVID-19 patients, and have a group of younger priests who go to the hospitals. 

“Every funeral was developing into a super spreader event, and we just couldn’t be part of that,” Seitz said. “When people grieve, they need to be with each other, they need to touch each other, and it’s not only what happens in church, but when they gather for church, they’re also going to gather for a meal afterwards.”

A risk-assessment tool developed by scientists at Georgia Tech estimates that in any gathering of 25 people in El Paso currently, there’s a 93% chance that at least one person has COVID-19.

Jewish El Pasoans have also experienced dramatic impacts on religious practices of grieving, where it is a religious obligation to participate in a funeral, not just for friends and family, but for anyone who has an association with the deceased, said Associate Rabbi Levi Greenberg of Chabad Lubavitch. 

Rabbi Levi Greenberg

“The whole approach of Jewish tradition to death, to mourning, and to paying tribute to the deceased, a lot of it has to do with being together with other people,” said Greenberg, who explained how, for example, the tradition of sitting shiva has transformed as a result of the pandemic.

Shiva, the Hebrew word for seven, is the seven-day period immediately following the burial, in which the bereaved family stops everything and stays at home together in order to focus on mourning. Greenberg described shiva as a “powerful therapeutic event,” and said that a key element is that community members come and visit the family to console them during this period. 

“People obviously call, they have Zoom calls and things like that,” but it’s not the same, Greenberg said. 

“Part of the idea of shiva is you come in, you sit there, you’re present (but) you don’t have to speak — on a Zoom call, you have to talk, you have to constantly engage, and it’s very different than a typical shiva setting,” he said.

Virtual forms of connection have become far more commonplace among grieving families because of the pandemic, not just after a person passes away, but even when they are receiving their last rites.

The Rev. George Georgetti, chaplain at Our Lady of the Abandoned Catholic Church Anglican Rite, said hospital nurses have helped him to Zoom call family members from COVID units while he gives a patient their last rites and anoints them. 

The Rev. George Georgetti, an Anglican priest, provides the last rites to a COVID-19 patient.

Georgetti has been inundated with requests from family members of sick and recently deceased El Pasoans, and said he averaged 16 funerals per day last week. 

“I have a mission as a priest. If somebody calls me, I need to go. And this is what I am doing. But it’s critical, the situation,” said Georgetti, who has been all the more busy because the Catholic Diocese is not conducting funeral Masses. Georgetti is not part of the diocese, but practices in the Anglican tradition, which has some similarities to Catholicism. Consequently, many El Pasoans who would have sought a Catholic funeral Mass have turned to him instead. 

“The people say, ‘I don’t care if he’s Catholic (or) not Catholic,’ I do for families who request evangelical, non-denominational (services). And you know, if you are Christian, Catholic or not Catholic, Lord Jesus is the same savior, for everybody,” Georgetti said. 

Georgetti has been leading rosaries on Facebook Live as a way for grieving El Pasoans to connect remotely. 

The Catholic Diocese has also embraced virtual forms of connection with parishioners in response to the pandemic, focused on mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the community by limiting in-person gatherings as much as possible.

“The church has just gone with both feet into online activities in these months, that’s been a saving grace. It’s not a replacement, but it’s a space holder in a certain way,” Seitz said. The diocese holds frequent livestream prayers and Masses

Seitz expressed concern that El Pasoans would view the halting of funeral masses as an indication that the Catholic Church is not there for them. 

“Some folks are going to say, the Catholic Church, they don’t care for us. But nothing could be further from the truth. We’re doing it because we care for them, and we don’t want any more people to die. These rites, as painful as it is, they can wait,” he said.

Cover photo: A casket waits in the chapel at Perches Funeral Homes’ West El Paso location. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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