CHICAGO — Hours before the grandfather died on a COVID-19 hospital floor, his closest kin entered the room two at a time, all covered in protective gowns, gloves, masks and face shields .
Barely breathing, the family patriarch pointed to each of his loved ones, then to his heart, and raised a fist in the air.
This was not how relatives had envisioned their last moments with 68-year-old Ruben Beltran of northwest suburban Hanover Park, one of more than 12,000 lives lost to the new virus in Illinois and 1.4 million worldwide.
"But it was a blessing that we were able to say goodbye," said granddaughter Amairani Jarvis, who planned Beltran's funeral in November. "Because I know a lot of people are dying alone right now, and they're not allowed to say goodbyes to their loved ones."
Just as the pandemic has altered so many aspects of life, it has also disrupted the experience of death and grieving. In response, mourners are creating new and innovative ways to honor the dying and departed while keeping within the bounds of pandemic protocols.
Many of these adaptations draw on cultural customs and ancient religious rites, said Roy Grinker, an anthropology professor at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who is co-leading a yearlong study on changes in funeral practices during the pandemic.
"There's an extraordinary resilience and creativity of people to figure out how to do what they need to do in order to mourn, in order to grieve," Grinker said.
A Muslim funeral director in Australia began giving out smaller bottles of perfume used during the ritual shrouding of a body, because the smell was such a powerful connection to the dead. She explained how family members would traditionally wash and shroud their loved one, but when this practice was interrupted by the pandemic, next-of-kin expressed difficulty coming to terms with the loss, sometimes wondering if their parent or spouse or sibling had even died. The familiar fragrance helped the grieving process.
"They could then use that as a very sensory way of remembering their loved one," the funeral director said during a virtual roundtable discussion on the impact of COVID-19 regulations on death and dying.
In upstate New York, a funeral director commemorated the life of a beloved football coach by sending whistles to mourners, a tactile and aural reminder of the deceased. At a funeral in Oklahoma, clear masks enabled mourners who were deaf to read lips and see facial expressions.