Elizabeth Fournier/ Cornerstone Funeral Services
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Death from a distance: COVID-19 is denying families the right to mourn

Technology is helping families say goodbye to loved ones, but it's no replacement for the real thing.

Since the coronavirus lockdown, Margaret Konecky's life has changed dramatically.

She hasn't seen her husband in over a month. And barely seen the outside of her apartment, an apartment she's currently sharing with her two sisters. 

Worst of all, Konecky lost her mother after a fall in her apartment.

In less than four months, COVID-19 has put the entire world on lockdown. As the death toll rises daily, it's easy to distance ourselves from that harsh reality, to think of it as a series of statistics. Focusing on the individual stories of those who have died, leaving family behind, is almost too much. 

It's a reality made worse by coronavirus restrictions. Given current lockdown conditions, many families can't even grieve properly. They can't hold funerals, can't attend the burials of loved ones. It's an unbearable thought.

And it happened to Konecky.

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Several framed portraits hang behind the bed Konecky sits on as she recounts the last month. Above her head, the ceiling is papered in a soft blue with daisies.  

The retired podiatrist has lived in Cleveland for 40 years but jumped on a plane to New York City after her mother, Cyrena, took a bad fall in her home on March 20. Once she was admitted to the hospital with multiple fractures to her back, pelvis and sacrum, Konecky and her sisters weren't allowed to see their mother. For almost a week, the sisters were in separate apartments, but constantly on the phone, sharing updates from doctors at a hospital overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. 

"They kept saying, 'You better get your mother out of here, or you're never going to see her again,'" Konecky recalled. "They knew my mother was going to catch it and would never survive."

The hospital staff also knew Cyrena, with her excruciating injury, was in no condition to be transported. Seeing no other option, the sisters set up their mother's apartment like a hospital and brought Cyrena home five days later in an ambulance. Once home, their mother's health declined and Gov. Cuomo locked down New York. 

After Cyrena passed away, shelter-in-place mandates made a traditional Jewish funeral almost impossible. Konecky's sister's rabbi, however, had an idea: a digital funeral. 

Konecky got into New York just before Gov. Cuomo locked the city down. 

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The way we mourn

Across the country, Elizabeth Fournier is talking to me from Oregon, where she runs Cornerstone Funeral Services and Cremation. Bright yellow glasses are nestled in her blonde hair, pulled back from her face. Despite her sunny demeanor, Fournier is no stranger to loss. Her mother and her live-in grandparents passed away close together when she was a child. 

"I was that weird kid who always spent time at funerals," she said. "We were spending more time in caskets than out of them."

Fournier recalled lunchtimes and recesses in school when classmates would come to her after losing a pet or a grandparent because they knew she would understand. Fournier, a fourth-generation undertaker, attended mortuary college in San Francisco and has worked in the funeral industry for 30 years. 

Planning a funeral has changed in the wake of the pandemic. Although Fournier didn't have a hand in Konecky's mother's funeral, she now helps families make arrangements over Zoom or Skype calls, email and even fax. 

Families who've watched a loved one die, COVID-19 or otherwise, aren't getting what they need in their time of grief, says Fournier. The ability to visit, touch and share a physical space is prevented by social distancing measures. Families might have to stay in the car or miss the burial completely, depending on the cemetery. Visitations are even trickier. Social distancing demands only immediate family attends a funeral, but how do you define "immediate family"?

A preacher reads a service as Fournier photographs for a family who isn't allowed to be present for the burial due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Elizabeth Fournier/Cornerstone Funeral Services

"It could be four people, it could be 40 people. You don't want to put people in that situation of trying to figure out what that is," she said. 

To prevent that extra stress, Fournier crafted a digital solution. She sets up her laptop in front of the casket or shroud and connects with the family on Zoom or Skype. They speak briefly to make sure the connection is stable and everyone can see, then she retreats to her office down the hall. Fournier checks back in an hour to see if the family needs more time or if anyone has logged off. 

"Technology has become the way that we mourn during COVID-19," she said. 

Making traditions digital

Watching her mother's funeral on a phone wasn't ideal, but Konecky noticed a bright side -- technology allowed for over 100 people to pay respects to Cyrena, a woman Konecky remembers effortlessly balancing motherhood, marriage and career for 60 years. Most of those who dialed in to the Zoom memorial service otherwise might not have been able to make the trip, let alone pack into the apartment.

Her family observed as many Jewish customs as possible from inside their mother's apartment. After the mourning period ended, explains Konecky, custom calls for you to take a walk outside. Given restrictions in the city, she and her sisters briefly stepped out of the door of their apartment and quickly went back inside. 

"If we didn't have cellphones and the internet, I don't know what we would've done," Konecky said.

From her phone, she and her sisters were able to watch the whole service at the cemetery, including the special shovel burial custom. At Jewish funerals after the coffin is lowered into the ground, the shovel drops the first scoop of dirt upside down. This, explains Konecky, signifies you're not using a shovel for normal reasons.

Technology also helped with the Kaddish, a mourner's prayer traditionally said three times a day for one year after a person dies. After the funeral, Konecky's sister received a call from a friend in Israel. The man vowed to say the Kaddish for a year in honor of Cyrena. But that wasn't all. 

"Ten men have to be present, it's called a minyan, when the prayer is said," explained Konecky. "But, in Israel, they're all on lockdown also. He got nine of his friends from the balconies of their apartment buildings and we saw it all on somebody's phone. 

"They were all saying the prayer together from different balconies for my mother."

The rules have been broken

Implementing Zoom and Skype into funeral services isn't new to Fournier. Even before the pandemic she would often have someone dial into a memorial if they lived far away or couldn't make it home in time. In addition, people haven't stopped dying from natural causes and the use of a camera has been invaluable with strict after-death visitation rules. Nurses and hospice workers have also started using their phones to let family members say goodbye during a loved one's final hours.  

"This is what death during isolation looks like and it's a meager substitute for being in a shared space with the support of folks who knew and loved the person in the casket," she said. "Death in the time of COVID-19 has denied this family their right to mourn."

Entities like mortuary, cemetery boards and funeral bureaus are in charge of licensing and protocol in each state, Fournier explained, and the agencies have said to treat every death as a COVID-19 death. Not everyone who passes away has been tested or results come back after they've died. To lessen the risk to an embalmer or a funeral worker, Fournier said, funeral homes have been encouraged to do direct burials or cremations.

One week Fournier had three burials back to back, but she said many moments stand out to her. At one burial, she'd driven out into the country and a pastor waited for her alone. She snapped photos for the family as the man stood at the corner of the casket in a navy suit and opened his bible to read a service. The bright red bandana tied around his face is a stark reminder of the reason he and Fournier are the only ones present. 

"I've had services where I'm holding up the computer and I can hear the person sobbing uncontrollably because they want to be there to hold mom's hand," she said. 

At another burial, Fournier was filming at a cemetery that wouldn't allow any family. She recalled an older man who didn't understand why he couldn't come and say goodbye. Why he couldn't at least sit in the car. People tend to get out of cars, Fournier tells me. The rules have been broken too many times.

Sometimes family members are allowed to come, but must observe social distancing guidelines or stay in their cars. Cemeteries make their own rules, according to Fournier. 

Elizabeth Fournier/Cornerstone Funeral Services

"Everybody assumes they're immediate family. Everybody assumes they're the best friend. And I know that. It's called love," she said. "It's why we're here on the planet."

Cornerstone is still open for people to come make arrangements in person, or to pick up ashes, even though some funeral homes won't allow families to pick up remains. 

I ask Fournier how her work makes her feel in these uncertain times. She sighs.

"I feel like if I wasn't physically able to have the technology, this family would have nothing," she says after a beat. "Thank god for technology. I feel that helps me be a saving to them. I also feel extremely sad." 

She's experienced a lot of loss in her life, she explains but back then could grieve in a traditional way. Her heart aches for those who can't right now. 

"Love the people who are in your life right now. Love them steadily and strongly because tomorrow they could be gone," she said.

This story is part of CNET's The Future of Funerals series. Stay tuned this week for more.