Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Mourning in America: Pandemic has changed how we grieve, hold funerals

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Funerals, once a time of gathering with family and friends, sharing memories and comforting, familiar foods, has become another way of life upended by COVID-19.

People are feeling this loss of community, with funerals now relegated to 10 in attendance in the Harrisburg area. The “yellow” phase, which allows for 25 attendees, still will create hard decisions for families.

“Rituals are built on community and holding each other up,” said Rev. Virginia Cover, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Camp Hill. “It’s a very difficult decision to make, who will be the 10 people.”

Susan Resavy, director of family services for Hospice of Central Pennsylvania, said people understand intellectually that this is needed, but it’s still emotionally heartbreaking.

“It’s not going to feel the same,” she said. “Acknowledge that this is really hard.”

Peter Stegman, general manager of Hetrick-Bitner Funeral Home of Harrisburg, said that, at times of stress, we look to be supported by others. When that’s taken away, “it’s confusing and overwhelming.” Gathering provides support through hugs and wiping away of tears, which is “not conducive to social distancing,” he said.

COVID-19 has also created a collective trauma. And this, accompanied by the death of a loved one, has exacerbated the anxiety that normally accompanies grief.

“A communal laying to rest is not happening, and full acknowledgement of grief is not happening,” Cover said.

Local funeral homes are working to assist families through this stunted process.

“In a world that is built on tradition, we are trying to encourage people to embrace new and creative traditions to help them connect to a greater network of relatives and friends,” said Stegman.

Those new and creative traditions include live-streaming funerals, allowing folks to virtually participate, and in Cover’s case, holding a home funeral.

Resavy said that, even with the ability to gather virtually, it’s healthy for people to plan a larger gathering for later.

“Whether it’s three months down the road or six months down the road, have the event,” she said.

Hetrick-Bitner Funeral Homes is permitting the delayed use of its facilities—letting family and friends hold larger gatherings when allowable.

“We don’t want them to feel as though they did what they did but regret it,” Stegman said.

Perhaps even worse is being told that a family can’t hold a funeral at all. A number of families have been told, erroneously, that they are not permitted to have a funeral right now, Stegman said.

Often, families arrive fearful over what they can and can’t do, Stegman said. So, he tries to focus families on what they can control.

“Who’s going to attend, how to include others, and where we are going to do it,” he said.

Cover pointed out that mourning is also put on hold for the extended family, friends and neighbors.

“People say, ‘I didn’t even get to bring a casserole,’” she said.

There are ways to support people in this harsh time of isolated grief. People can call and send cards or flowers.

The Hospice of Central Pennsylvania is “making a lot more contacts with families,” said Resavy. They are holding Zoom teleconferencing events and virtual support groups. Grieving people, she said, “should look for support in the community.”

Cover holds monthly caregiver and grief support group meetings on Zoom.

COVID-19 has altered the way that we live and has taken away milestone events for many, but traditional ways of mourning needn’t end completely.

“Plan something when you can,” Resavy said. “That’s what’s important. Then, at some point, do what you would normally do.”

 For more information about Hospice of Central Pennsylvania, visit

To contact Grace Lutheran Church about its Caregiver and Grief Support Group, email

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