Guidance for Ministries to the Dying and Bereaved During Social Distancing

At the heart of the Christian gospel is Christ’s victory over death. We attest to Christ’s death and resurrection in our baptism as we die to sin and become new creations in Christ. At the time of our physical death, we anticipate the final resurrection when, as those who have put on Christ, we may be clothed in glory. Ministries at the time of death proclaim this good news, but also meet spiritual and emotional needs. Gathering to celebrate and mourn a life while declaring the hope of resurrection is an important part of congregational life.

The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to disrupt these important ministries of the church at the time of death. We are much like the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body but could not carry out their task. How may we attend both to the passage of the dying into the nearer presence of God and to the care of those who have lost a loved one?

At the time of death

Those who are at the end of life should not miss the ministry of the church even if pastors and other church leaders cannot be physically present with them. The United Methodist Book of Worship (UMBOW) includes prayers for the dying (##166-167) that a church leader may offer over the telephone or by means of a video call. If there is time, a church leader might email these prayers to a family member, a friend, or a member of the nursing staff (perhaps even a church member) who is present at bedside and can pray them there. Persons from the congregation—members of the choir who live in the same home—may provide a ministry of song by means of an audio or video call. After death, these same means may deliver the prayers included at UMBOW ##167-168. Church leaders may also ask hospital or care center chaplains to speak on behalf of their congregation and to convey their prayers. During this time, pastors and church leaders may want to partner more closely with local chaplains and exchange telephone numbers as well as email addresses.

Funeral and memorial services

Viewings or visitations, if held at all, should be limited only to immediate family (with numbers determined by state policies) and then with proper protocols for social distancing. Careful cleaning must occur during the gathering and afterwards. Funeral homes should already be following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. Pastors should be attentive to local custom during these occasions yet also encourage adaptation of the event to fit the current situation. Such an adaptation might be a video conference “visitation” at which stories may be told and remembrances shared.

Local circumstances may allow for a funeral with the body or cremated remains present in the church building, in a funeral home, or at graveside (cemeteries should also be following CDC guidelines). In each of these cases, social distancing must be observed and proper cleaning (with masks and gloves) done before, during, and after the service. Congregations may find it helpful to establish a policy for funerals and other practices during the pandemic (see suggestions for a policy below). Quite likely only immediate family would attend the funeral (and then in limited numbers), and some families may desire to livestream or record the service for viewing by family and friends. If families take this option, those planning the service might email the service leaflet, bulletin, or simple outline for worship to enable participation by those viewing remotely. These families should also be encouraged to hold a memorial service when extended family, friends, and the congregation may attend in person.

In the current crisis, families may choose to cremate their loved one. Pastors and church leaders need to be sensitive to families that might have otherwise chosen in-earth burial. Now is not a time for discussions of the appropriateness of cremation versus in-earth burial, and church leaders will want to support families in their decision.

Many families will opt to delay services for their loved ones until a time when it is safe for the community to gather. For those concerned about the absence of a funeral shortly after death, they should be assured that a later memorial service does not delay the transition of their loved from earthly life to experiencing the nearer presence of God. The memorial service will formally and ritually give thanks for their loved one’s life and acknowledge God’s already present love and care. That said, the Commendation (UMBOW #150) could be used at or shortly after the time of death. The Commendation may be repeated at a later memorial service.

Because of the disruption and delay to funerals, congregations might consider an expanded service on All Saints’ Day to remember especially those who died during the restrictions of the pandemic.

Care of those experiencing loss

A meal together in the church building after a funeral is a common practice in many communities. However, safety considerations at this time make it unwise to hold such an event. Church leaders might consider what to do in lieu of this important gathering when it is once again appropriate to meet together. More immediately, families and friends might hold meals in their own locations but join online to share stories about their loved one and support each other. A more formal practice would be to hold a love feast in an online format, with testimonies focused on how the deceased made God’s love visible to them.

In the days and weeks after a death, families will need even more special support given the uncertainties of the future created by the pandemic. Letter writing, phone calls, and video chats can be means for connecting the congregation with the bereaved. Church leaders might divide the membership into smaller units to give care to one another, with special attention to those who have suffered loss or who are facing long-term illness. Technology can serve well to remind all the “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

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Establishing a policy for the local congregation

During this time of pandemic, congregations would be wise to put into place funeral policies established by pastors and members of governing boards or councils. Such policies will decrease the necessity for pastoral leadership continually to create new processes for each case.

  • Can the community host a visitation or viewing?
  • Can the community host a funeral service in the church building?
    • How many persons will be permitted to attend (with attention to state guidelines)
    • What protocols will be in place for proper cleaning?
    • Will the casket be opened or closed? (The CDC currently recommends not touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19, though there may be less of a chance of the virus spreading from certain types of touching, such as holding the hand or hugging after the body has been prepared for viewing).
  • If funerals are not to be held in the church building, and a delay for a memorial service is recommended, what procedures will be used for scheduling those services?
  • If there is a cemetery on church grounds, will the congregation permit outdoor services?
    • How many persons will be permitted to attend (with attention to state guidelines)?
    • What protocols will be in place for cleaning?
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