Death in the time of COVID-19
I understood that COVID-19 had changed the way we all live, but I wasn’t prepared to learn so much about how much it changes the way people die
Oct 25, 2020
Note: The names of the individuals mentioned have been changed to protect their privacy.
I’m not necessarily the religious type, but I’ve had one consistent prayer since the start of quarantine. It went “Dear Lord, I pray that nobody I know dies of COVID-19. Amen.” It’s a selfish thing to pray for, I admit, but I prayed for it anyway.
It was on an early August morning that I stopped asking.
At around 7 a.m. on Aug. 5, I received a phone call from one of my best friends. She had said two words, “He’s gone.” Just like that, one of my closest friends from college died of complications from COVID-19.
Frank was 24 and passed shortly after his father, who was also claimed by the virus.
I’ve known other people who passed during this frankly awful period in time, but none of them were as close to me as he was.
At the onset of the pandemic, death became a statistic. There were numbers, (badly made) graphs and daily updates tallying new cases and deaths. It desensitized me to the fact that each number on that report was an actual person with a dog or a pending quarantine hobby or a human being in the middle of life.
I didn’t know it at that time, but the following weeks would teach me so much about what I didn’t know about death in the time of COVID-19.
Where they died matters
For weeks, Frank was hooked up to a ventilator. He was 24, terribly kind, genuinely reliable, masterful with a pencil, thoughtful as hell, intelligent beyond understanding and hooked up to a ventilator. He was admitted to the hospital after contracting the disease and died there.
Apparently, dying in a hospital makes things go a little bit easier. From the hospital, the procedure of claiming the body wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be. His sister told me that it was a pretty quick process, but they had to wait a day or two to get him cremated (because of the number of people who died during that time).
My other friend Maria’s grandmother died at home, and it was a vastly different story. After she passed of natural causes, they called emergency services to get a doctor over to officially pronounce her death. After multiple attempts to contact the barangay and 911, they still had to wait for an hour or so before a team arrived and took her body away.
A person fighting for their life would have spent that hour struggling to hold on.
She said that the hour they waited, it felt like some sort of liminal space between life and death. Her vital signs were no longer present, but she wasn’t officially declared as deceased either. The waiting made her think of what could have happened if it was an emergency and they were racing to save her grandmother’s life.
A person fighting for their life would have spent that hour struggling to hold on.
Their calls resulted in two teams finally arriving at their home to take Maria’s grandmother to the hospital. They placed her on a stretcher and drove off to a hospital where they’d officially pronounce her passing.
Claiming the body could be easy or very very difficult
The post-mortem process went quickly for Frank, but the same can’t be said for all cases. My friend Lia’s uncle passed away the month prior. He had problems with his lungs for a while, but he didn’t die of COVID-19.
The hospital treated him like a suspected COVID case.
Their family is comfortable, but not well off, which just showed me how much money mattered in this instance. Since he was a suspected COVID case, they wouldn’t release his body. According to “hospital policy,” he was to be kept there—away from his family—until his remains were cremated.
A grieving family was given the option to collect the remains of their loved one, for a literal price.
But here’s the kicker.
Since he was just a suspected COVID case, the morgue would release his body—uncremated—to the family.
For an under-the-table fee.
A grieving family was given the option to collect the remains of their loved one, for a literal price. I was livid. As much as this is a family affair, I almost couldn’t hold my anger back. I didn’t understand why it had to be like this. At a time like this? Really?
In the end—without much choice—they paid the morgue and collected his body.
Making (final) arrangements come with many phone calls
It wasn’t general community quarantine (GCQ) or any of the simpler quarantine variants at the time, so everyone was on high alert.
After innumerable frantic calls made by different members of the family to funeral homes around Metro Manila, almost none of them would accept Lia’s uncle. The mere suspicion of COVID was enough to turn them away at the family’s time of grief.
The worst thing about the entire situation is we can’t say it’s unfair on the part of the funeral homes. The virus can live inside a deceased host’s body for a number of days. It’s a possible infection risk, but my god it absolutely sucks.
They finally lucked out after a few more tries, but the trauma from the entire situation had already been dealt. Thankfully, it was smoother sailing from that point. They were able to hold a very small, socially distanced wake and had his remains cremated. Soon after, Lia’s uncle was laid to rest.
Age matters when hosting an online wake
Another thing I realized is that there’s a stark difference between the death of an old and young person during the pandemic.
In the case of Maria’s grandmother, most of her friends were around her age. The obvious hurdle was technology. What platform do you use? How do you inform her friends? Do you call their relatives? Is live streaming an option? What if they live alone and don’t have a smartphone?
Before her grandmother passed, she made some final requests. Among those requests were that her remains were to be cremated, no wake shall be held and she’d like to be interred next to her husband in their home province.
…the pandemic gave them more time to make better arrangements. That’s a silver lining if I ever saw one.
In lieu of an online wake, Maria’s parents tasked her to make a post on Facebook to inform their relatives and friends of her grandmother’s passing (after making the appropriate phone calls to family members, of course). They donated her casket, since there was no wake or viewing, and kept her urn at home.
The pandemic made it difficult for them to fulfill her final request (oh, the logistics of it all), so they’re keeping her urn at home until it’s safe enough to lay her to rest next to her husband. It did give them more time to make arrangements, though.
Instead of the typical week of trying to squeeze everything in, from planning her wake to organizing her burial, the pandemic gave them more time to make better arrangements. That’s a silver lining if I ever saw one.
Before her grandmother passed, Maria attended an online wake. The wake was hosted on Zoom and a private meeting link was sent to attendees prior to the event. This one was quite large, with about 150 to 200 people in virtual attendance. The person who passed had a big family and lots of friends, so there was a program for each night of the nine-day novena mass.
She decided to look through the attendees and noticed that another guest (who had his camera on) was lounging on his sofa through the proceedings. In the middle of all the praying and crying, it was an undeniably distracting sight.
In this instance, online wake etiquette definitely mattered.
One of our friends took the initiative to organize an online novena for Frank. We didn’t really worry about which platform to host it on or how to invite people. The questions were more along the lines of etiquette.
On the first night of the novena, I showed up in a plain shirt which I quickly changed out of after seeing everyone in more appropriate attire. Other faux pas quickly emerged, like awkward pauses, connectivity issues, construction noises, someone getting called for dinner, mistimed laughter from a meme opened from another window and a lot more that aren’t suited for polite company.
None of it really mattered, though.
What mattered was that everyone was there to pay tribute to the one person who wasn’t.
Socially distanced burials can come with some exceptions
On an open, elevated field, surrounded by family and friends, Frank and his father were laid to rest. Initially, there were supposed to be two groups for the proceedings, but the entire party was allowed to attend because it was an open space. According to one of his sisters, there were about 30 people in attendance.
His sister recounted that everyone wore masks and sat one seat apart from each other, but hugs couldn’t be helped.
The event stringently followed COVID-19 protocols. His sister recounted that everyone wore masks and sat one seat apart from each other, but hugs couldn’t be helped. It was the one quarantine protocol that they weren’t able to follow.
Some parting words
It was only recently that I was able to visit him. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, a day before my birthday and three days before his, I said my goodbyes. A lone blue umbrella stood out on an otherwise green and gray field. I stood before the plot of land he and his father were laid to rest in, and cried.
COVID-19, the daily statistics and some officials’ celebration over “beating” the UP prediction on the pandemic just turned all this death into white noise.
Apparently, tears and pandemic safety gear don’t really go well with each other. I tried toughing it out for about five minutes before I rested my face shield on my head and tucked my mask in my pocket.
It’s almost too on the nose to write, but the harder I cried, the harder the rain fell. I’ll spare you the rest of my clichés, but that was what happened.
As someone who’s barely started her adult life, I don’t have much experience with death. It’s a vaguely looming concept that I only ever think of when I see the occasional hearse. COVID-19, the daily statistics and some officials’ celebration over “beating” the UP prediction on the pandemic just turned all this death into white noise.
I see people going on vacation, attending parties and going to events, and none of it will ever sit right with me. I understand that quarantine fatigue happens, but we’re still in the middle of this.
Please don’t forget that.
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