The Importance of Holding a Funeral–Even a Year Later


Chris Hamilton, his wife Kristin and their three daughters held a memorial service recently for his mother, Rona, who died last year, days after the pandemic-related lockdown began.

They picked the weekend of her April 23 birthday and set out chairs for 20 relatives and close friends in the yard of their Broomall, Pa., home. A celebrant officiated. The girls, ages 9, 7 and 6, wrote and read poems about gardening with Nana.

Mr. Hamilton, an only child whose father died a decade ago, delivered a eulogy that he had been thinking about for the past 13 months. He had wanted to honor his mother’s life with a gathering, but the pandemic made doing so safely impossible for months. “The guilt and weight on my shoulders for the last year has been lifted,” he says.

The Hamilton family, with Chris’s mother, Rona, on a Florida vacation that the girls recalled in poems they wrote about their grandmother.



Photo:

Kristin Hamilton

Across the country, as restrictions ease and vaccinations become more available, families are holding long-delayed memorial services for those who died last year. Some are being held on a loved one’s birthday or the one-year anniversary of a death, often in parks, yards and cemeteries. Such rituals allow people to share pent-up grief, according to David Kessler, who has written six book about grief.

“It’s never too late to have a meaningful ceremony,” says Alan Wolfelt, founder of the Center for Loss & Life Transition, in Fort Collins, Colo., which offers resources for caregivers and the bereaved. He recalls one family holding a service 28 years after a loved one died. “At the time, the patriarch thought it was easier, faster and cheaper not to have a funeral,” says Dr. Wolfelt—a decision the family regretted and ultimately rectified.

What’s Your Grief, an education and support website, recently polled followers on

Facebook

and Instagram, asking who planned to hold memorial services for loved ones who died last year.

Two thirds of the 166 respondents said they did, with the majority envisioning an intimate, informal gathering and a smaller percentage favoring a traditional funeral or service. One respondent will host an outdoor potluck at her home in July, a year after her mother died. “Many people have stories that need to get out about how she changed their life,” she says. Another follower will hold a service for her mother this month that her eight aunts and uncles can attend.

Others are reluctant but feel compelled. “I personally am still too much of a mess to gather,” wrote one woman who lost both parents last year, “but I am putting together a gathering on Mom’s b day in May so my siblings and family can be together.”

GiGi, far left, and Lola Hamilton with a sign they made for their grandmother’s garden. The sign now stands in a wildflower garden the girls helped plant in her memory. At right, Lola shows a picture of having fun with her grandmother in a pool in Florida.



Photo:

Kristin Hamilton (2)

Litsa Williams, a clinical social worker and co-founder of the What’s Your Grief site, says “when you have a funeral, you have the opportunity to look around and see how many lives were touched by a person” and that experience is hard to capture online.

Her own family was unable to have a Greek Orthodox funeral for her uncle, who died last year and was an active member of the church. They plan to invite extended family and friends to a park in Baltimore, perhaps in the fall if it feels safe, for a celebration with food and live music. “In many ways, that will capture a lot more of who my uncle was,” Ms. Williams says.

Even months after a death, families are finding comfort in mourning together. On April 5, a year after Ralph Gismondi died of Covid, his family and friends gathered at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hempstead, N.Y., for a limited-capacity requiem Mass for the 68-year-old retired firefighter and JetBlue attendant.

In the church, an urn with his ashes rested in a wreath of flowers next to a photo of Mr. Gismondi holding a lobster, one of his favorite foods. His teenage grandsons wrote tributes, printed in the program, about how “Pop Pop” loved to make others laugh. His older daughter, Lisa Miller, delivered a eulogy. Afterward, a woman approached Lori Gismondi Gonzalez, his other daughter, and talked about meeting her father in the 1980s at the fire department and how kind he was. “I might not have heard that story if we didn’t have the funeral,” Ms. Gonzalez says. Those stories and the chance to honor her father publicly and in his parish church gave the family “a sense of peace,” she says.

A photo of Ralph Gismondi with one of his favorite foods was displayed at his requiem Mass last month.



Photo:

Ann Gismondi

Elisa Chase, international director of the nonprofit Celebrant Foundation and Institute in Montclair, N.J., noticed an uptick in requests over the past month for someone to officiate at a memorial service. The institute is affiliated with 1,500 certified celebrants who are independent contractors. “One woman I spoke with says she was so afraid that if she waited much longer, people wouldn’t come,” Ms. Chase says. For the memorials, some families are booking restaurants with outdoor seats, sending save-the-date cards and creating table centerpieces that reflect a loved one’s favorite sports team.

Share Your Thoughts

If your family postponed a memorial service because of the pandemic, did you decide to hold one later—and how did that go? Join the conversation below.

Others aren’t ready for a ceremony just yet. “A truly meaningful memorial involves relatives coming in from around the country,” says Sabila Khan, of Jersey City, N.J., whose 76-year-old father, Shafqat Khan, died of Covid in April 2020. “There is still too much uncertainty.” For the one-year anniversary of their father’s death, her brother flew from Dallas so the family, now all vaccinated, could visit his grave. It was the first time the immediate family had been together since her father died, says Ms. Khan, who co-founded the Facebook group Covid-19 Loss Support for Family and Friends.

For much of the past year, the Hamiltons remembered Rona through their own private rituals. Kristin and the girls picked recipes from Rona’s recipe box to bake cookies on the anniversary of her death and made a memory board with photos.

But they always wanted to do something more and, with vaccines available, her birthday approaching and weather warm enough to be outside, they turned to Beth Palubinsky, a certified celebrant, to officiate and help organize. She incorporated Rona’s love for gardening into the memorial, where guests could plant wildflowers in the Hamiltons’ yard. Ms. Palubinsky says having that year between Rona’s death and her memorial gave the family time to think about how to celebrate her life. “Grief softens a bit,” she says.

Write to Clare Ansberry at clare.ansberry@wsj.com

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