Brooklyn Boro

Photos: Funerals become lonely affairs amid pandemic

May 29, 2020 John Minchillo and Seth Wenig Associated Press
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BROOKLYN (AP) — “People, in their sadness, cooperate because they know the reasons,” Amy Cunningham, owner of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services on Coney Island Avenue, said about the state’s coronavirus-related restrictions on funerals that mandate services that are attended by 10 or fewer people.

“They understand the risk to cemetery personnel and the continuing risk of COVID-19,” Cunningham said. The number of funerals, she added, has slowly begun to decline after escalating with the rise of the pandemic.

Indoor services are restricted to immediate family members only. The family-only rule is lifted for graveside services, but the limit of 10 people still stands, and mourners still must be 6 feet apart, said John Heyer Jr., owner of Scotto Funeral Home in Carroll Gardens.

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Many Catholics, in particular, miss the large wakes they were accustomed to, added Heyer. “People tell stories about the deceased, then they tell stories about the deceased again,” and that’s one way they get closure, he said.

A wave of shaken families has had to honor the dead apart and in small groups during an era of social distancing. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

In addition, cemeteries have different rules for funerals. “At one cemetery, they let you get out of the car, at another, you have to stay in the car.” Mourners, he said, might ask, in effect, “Why don’t you let us get out of the car when they let us do it at [a different cemetery]?”

Finally, Heyer commented on the “immediate family” guidelines. “Some people are closer to their friends than they are to their family members,” he said. “For some people, the people who live in their building are their family.”

Mohammad Altaf, the generous spirit. Eudiana Smith, the trailblazer. Servius Collin, the caretaker. All were taken by COVID-19. And in death, all were robbed of the funerals they deserved.

As the coronavirus pandemic worked its way toward 100,000 U.S. deaths, a wave of shaken families has had to honor the dead apart and in small groups during an era of social distancing.

Tariq Aziz (center), brother of Mohammad Altaf, was hugged by a mourner at Al-Rayaan Muslim Funeral Services on Sunday. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Restrictions on gatherings are only now being loosened, and many people have been forced to deny themselves the collective show of affection that helps the living cope with grief.

When Smith, a retired mental health professional who died at age 73, was laid to rest at a cemetery this month near her home in Jersey City, New Jersey, mourners watched from their cars as workers interred the casket. Then, only one person at a time was allowed at her graveside.

“My mother was healthy and still full of life,” said her daughter, Erika Bermudez.

Bermudez called her mother a trailblazer, the first in the family to emigrate from Jamaica to the United States.

“I was robbed of the experience of being able to celebrate her life in a manner that would offer some kind of respect for the woman she was,” Bermudez said.

Bermudez did her best, live-streaming the ceremony to friends and family who couldn’t attend.

The body of Mohammad Altaf, who died at 48 of COVID-19, was ritually washed and wrapped before being given funeral prayers on Sunday. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

After Altaf, a car service driver and father of three young children, died in Brooklyn at age 48, two dozen men gathered at Al-Rayaan Muslim Funeral Services on May 17 for the traditional washing and prayer ceremonies.

“My brother, he’s got so many good friends, I was expecting maybe too many people would participate in the funeral,” said his younger brother, Tariq Aziz. “But because of this kind of situation, it’s very risky.”

Still, Aziz said, he is grateful to have given his brother his last rites, as the devoutly religious man known among his fellow Pakistanis for generosity and kindness would have wished.

“People who passed away with this kind of disease, the people, they don’t want to touch it,” Aziz said. “We’re trying not to think too much. We just keep praying for him, that his soul is at peace and rest.”

The body of Mohammad Altaf was prepared before being given funeral prayers at Al-Rayaan Muslim Funeral Services. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Both New York and New Jersey have, in the past few days, loosened rules that had previously all but shut funerals down by barring groups of people from gathering.

But even the new rules will require subdued funerals.

Groups of as many as 10 people are now allowed in New York as long as mourners stay 6 feet apart. Groups of as many as 25 people are allowed in New Jersey if the ceremony is outdoors, or 10 people if indoors.

Before his death last month at age 79, Servius Collin of Newark, New Jersey, rarely missed gatherings of his tight-knit Haitian family, especially funerals.

His own would be a quiet affair.

Three of his children and two of their spouses gathered for a brief viewing at a Newark funeral home on April 30 to see him lay in a sharp suit, red paisley tie and fashionable fedora.

Mourners gathered as the body of Mohammad Altaf was wheeled into an open space at Al-Rayaan Muslim Funeral Services. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

The family waited on the porch of the funeral home until the door was unlocked. They were ushered in and had about 15 minutes to pay their respects and take some pictures to send to relatives who couldn’t attend.

Diuene Collin said he felt as if his father had died “with no dignity.”

“I kept on saying,” he said, “if I knew my dad was going to leave me like this, that I would have spent more time with him.”

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