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‘Unthinkable circumstances’: Families rely on faith to cope with funeral restrictions during pandemic

4 Utah families share how their faith helped them with the death of a loved one when they couldn’t gather because of social distancing and other COVID-19 related restrictions

Joel Ragar receives an American flag during his grandfather Richard Ragar’s funeral service as his children Decklin Ragar, 5, Evalee Ragar, 7, and Wynston Ragar, 3, watch the ceremony at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy on Monday, April 20, 2020. The World War II veteran lived in Alpine with his wife before moving to Arizona and passing away after being hospitalized alone for about a month at age 93 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Joel Ragar receives an American flag during his grandfather Richard Ragar’s funeral service as his children Decklin Ragar, 5, Evalee Ragar, 7, and Wynston Ragar, 3, watch the ceremony at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy on Monday, April 20, 2020. The World War II veteran lived in Alpine with his wife before moving to Arizona and passing away after being hospitalized alone for about a month at age 93 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SANDY — This is not how David Ragar or his son Joel imagined they would say farewell to their father and grandfather.

To begin with, as his health declined in recent weeks at a hospital in Mesa, Arizona, family was not permitted to visit him due to community health restrictions brought on by COVID-19.

When 93-year-old Richard Ralph Ragar died of causes not related to the novel coronavirus, his body was prepared for burial at a mortuary where David Ragar, his wife, a daughter and his mother-in-law held a limited viewing, said a prayer and closed the casket. As a tribute to Richard’s love of art and painting, they smudged his casket with oil paint they often saw on his fingers and clothes.

From there the World War II veteran’s body was transported to Utah for burial in a plot next to his wife. A short graveside service with military honors was held and Joel Ragar, a resident of Saratoga Springs, accepted an American flag on behalf of the family. With only his wife and three children standing by, Joel Ragar dedicated his grandfather’s grave to conclude the service.

It was small and simple, but peaceful, and it happened on a beautiful spring day, he said.

Accompanied by funeral director Tom Ligman, left, Clarissa Ragar, Joel Ragar, and their children Decklin Ragar, 5, Evalee Ragar, 7, and Wynston Ragar, 3, attend their grandfather Richard Ragar’s funeral service at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy on Monday, April 20, 2020. The World War II veteran lived in Alpine with his wife before moving to Arizona and passing away after being hospitalized alone for about a month at age 9e during the coronavirus pandemic.
Accompanied by funeral director Tom Ligman, left, Clarissa Ragar, Joel Ragar, and their children Decklin Ragar, 5, Evalee Ragar, 7, and Wynston Ragar, 3, attend their grandfather Richard Ragar’s funeral service at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy on Monday, April 20, 2020. The World War II veteran lived in Alpine with his wife before moving to Arizona and passing away after being hospitalized alone for about a month at age 93 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

“The folding of the flag was a very reverent experience and a big honor for me, my wife and my kids,” he said. “All in all, a great day.”

Under normal circumstances, the family would have loved to come together for a traditional funeral and celebration of Richard Ragar’s life. But given current conditions and relying on their Latter-day Saint belief in the afterlife, the family is grateful for what they could do.

“It’s obviously not the way we wanted to do it, but we all know this is just the way it is. We don’t have a lot of options,” David Ragar said. “Because of our beliefs and understanding of where we came from and where we’re going, it’s not tragic to us.”

The Ragars are one of many families who are leaning on their faith and religious beliefs as they mourn the passing of loved ones at a time of social distancing and funeral restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How do you conduct a funeral in the midst of a global pandemic, when a healing hug is now seen as a potential death sentence?” Jack Jenkins wrote recently in a Religion News article.

“The normal healing process has been disrupted,” Rabbi Elana Zelony, of Congregation Beth Torah in Texas, told Vox.com.

Decklin Ragar, 5, touches his great-grandfather Richard Ragar’s casket following his funeral service at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy on Monday, April 20, 2020. The World War II veteran lived in Alpine with his wife before moving to Arizona and passing away after being hospitalized alone for about a month at age 93 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Decklin Ragar, 5, touches his great-grandfather Richard Ragar’s casket following his funeral service at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy on Monday, April 20, 2020. The World War II veteran lived in Alpine with his wife before moving to Arizona and passing away after being hospitalized alone for about a month at age 93 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

The Deseret News recently spoke with three families about their experiences with restricted funerals, their feelings and what they learned.

‘I’ve never been through anything so hard’

Family, friends and members of her Latter-day Saint congregation in Garland, Box Elder County, mourned deeply when 76-year-old Rosalie Yoder died earlier this month. She was a cherished wife, mother, grandmother, friend and homemaker.

“Rosalie had a zest for life and a contagious sense of humor,” her obituary reads. “Many have said once they met her, they had a friend for life.”

Knowing her time was close, family and friends organized a “honk-and-wave” parade. Yoder watched from her bed as a line of cars sporting balloons and signs passed by in the street outside her home.

Her family created a Facebook page where people who couldn’t visit in person posted photos, memories and messages of love and support that her daughters read to her.

Shantelle Spackman, a daughter, said her mother was very appreciative of those thoughtful gestures.

“She loved it,” Spackman said. “It was so sweet that people cared and wanted do do something.”

It was Yoder’s last wish to see her grandson, Ridge Miller, a missionary serving in Argentina, before she died. He wasn’t scheduled to come home for another six months, but when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent missionaries home early, Miller arrived just in time to see his grandmother before she passed away.

But after Yoder’s death, Spackman, who described herself as “a hugger,” wasn’t prepared for how the restrictions and social distancing would impact their efforts to say a proper goodbye. Although she’s grateful for what took place, the planning felt rushed and the graveside service shared via technology felt inadequate. Finding closure has been difficult, she said.

“I’ve never been through anything so hard,” said Spackman, who used to call her mother nearly every day. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was OK. It’s done. There’s nothing we can do now and life goes on. Life is always changing and moving and we’ll just try to keep up and do the best we can.”

Mark Riley, Yoder’s Latter-day Saint bishop, gave brief remarks at the graveside service. The Garland 1st Ward Relief Society wasn’t able to prepare a traditional family meal but did hand out sack lunches for each person to take home.

Bishop Riley felt the service was just as spiritually edifying as most traditional funeral services. When asked what he took away from the experience, Bishop Riley suggested future funerals could be simplified.

“We might realize that funerals have kind of gotten out of hand,” he said. “Perhaps there’s a lot of fluff that could be done away with and still have a meaningful service.”

‘It unified people’

On April 6, Tim Brown and his wife received startling news. Mike McPhie, his wife’s brother, was unconscious and headed to the hospital.

Less than two hours later, the news was devastating. The 73-year-old McPhie had suddenly died from a cardiac arrest.

“It was just a total shock,” Brown said.

McPhie was an entrepreneur who never married but had a large circle of friends. As they grieved his untimely death, the funeral home strongly urged the family not to have a viewing or graveside service. They recommended a “direct burial” — a fast interment with no service, Brown said.

“We were like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ we don’t even get that,” the Murray resident said. “That was hard.”

Faced with no traditional means for saying farewell, Brown had one more option — technology. Two days later on April 8, which would have been McPhie’s 74th birthday, more than 40 people from California to Portugal, including New York, Washington, D.C., Tennessee and Utah, joined a Zoom meeting for what turned out to be a two-hour celebration of McPhie’s life. It was recorded and shared with even more people.

“Although we missed the hugs, we adapted,” Brown said. “Some people thought this is actually better than a traditional service.”

McPhie was a Latter-day Saint. Some of those who joined the Zoom service were fellow members, but many others were not. Even so, a warm, unifying feeling prevailed, Brown said.

“Regardless of where people are on the path to heaven, they felt it. ... It unified people,” Brown said. “I know that even our friends who may not be religious felt something because we heard their voices crack a bit and we saw tears. We just love that they opened up their hearts and shared. It enriched the entire conversation.”

Having attended a lot of funerals in his lifetime, Brown felt the Zoom memorial was successful on many levels. Not only did everyone honor health guidelines for social distancing, but people attended without incurring travel expenses and more were willing to speak up and share thoughts and memories.

“If you look for the silver lining in situations and know that life is eternal, and death is just one step along the way, knowing that can comfort us even in times where we’re shocked by a sudden departure from this life,” Brown said.

‘Prayers are not restricted’

Mark Wright Cooper, a veteran and avid tennis player, was honored by his family with a graveside service last Friday at the Veterans Cemetery and Memorial Park in Bluffdale. They will miss how he strummed his guitar, his calls to sing happy birthday, his spiritual leadership and the kind way he treated his grandchildren.

But not one aspect of planning the service was easy. How the family feels right now is best summarized by his wife Dianne, who said these are “unthinkable circumstances” for mourning a family member’s death.

“Our loved one passes suddenly and now we have to deal with new rules and regulations,” Dianne Cooper wrote in an email. “The limits on visitation and gravesite attendance have never existed so it has us feeling cheated, especially with rules that seem to change day by day. ... This is unfair and causes anger, frustration and disappointment to an already heartbreaking situation. This feels so disrespectful to the husband and father we are honoring who is worthy of so much more. ... Human contact is critical in this time and it has been forbidden.”

In the end, the family agreed, all you can do is treasure the memory of your loved one and find hope and comfort in your faith. It’s also possible to plan something in the future when restrictions are lifted.

“It’s easy to be upset, to feel robbed or angry about the situation, especially when there are so many restrictions in place,” wrote Jessica Reimer, one of Mark Cooper’s daughters who lives in Lehi. “Prayers are not restricted.”

Dianne Cooper shared a similar sentiment.

“When you have a strong faith there are certain things that are impossible to restrict,” she wrote. “You cannot restrict love, empathy and prayer. We have felt the prayers of so many. The Holy Spirit has been abundantly present. Ministering angels are on an errand from God and they cannot be restricted either. The love that we have for our husband and father and for each other cannot be restricted. We have experienced all of this, resulting in comfort and peace in all of our decision making, even in this turbulent time in the world. We have not been walking alone.”