Being in a reflective mood of late, I’m currently sitting in front of a fire . . . watching the flames dance about . . . listening to the silence and pondering life and all its mysteries. There’s a mug of Earl Grey tea on the table next to me (decaf so I won’t lie awake all night, pondering the ceiling) and a laptop in my lap (as in where else would it be?) and I’m attempting to find a way into what I want to say just now. It’s a way that’s not easily found.
Usually, when people want to tell me something and they begin with “I don’t know where to start” I’ll tell them to just spit it out. We’ll work on it from there. So I guess this time I’ll be doing some metaphorical spitting. It may be messy and it may not make much sense, but maybe we can work on it from there.
My husband’s uncle died on Friday. His health had been declining for years, but a hip replacement followed by complications followed by COVID put an end to his life on this earth. Someday, when I can coherently piece my thoughts together, I’ll tell you about him and something he once said to me. But for now his death has brought on these moments of reflection, and in that mirror I can see how much things have changed over the last year or so.
When the Governor of Tennessee issued Executive Order 17 on March 22nd of 2020, we encountered an abundance of confused and then disappointed families . . . and a fair amount of push back. We understood their frustration; we shared their dismay. But there wasn’t much we could do to change the situation. Most of the folks calling on us had no idea Executive Order 17 was even a thing, much less what it said. COVID-19 was new and had barely touched the rural communities of the south . . . but those of us who had access to the thoughts of our professional brothers and sisters to the north knew what was coming. We tried to explain to the families we were serving that this was a necessary measure and one that we were bound by law to enforce. But the enemy hadn’t fully made his presence known yet, and that seeming absence led to all manner and kind of questions. Why were precautions necessary? Why did we have to limit funeral attendance to 10? Why did it have to be their loved one who wouldn’t be honored as traditional southerners honor their dead? It wasn’t fair . . . I remember standing in the foyer one night, “discussing” with a gentleman the coming tsunami of viral infections while he assured me it would never reach us . . . if it was even real.
It was amazing to see all the ways creative thinkers could devise for circumventing an Executive Order. And it was so hard to tell them their efforts were in vain—hard because what we were telling them the law required went against everything we as funeral service professionals believed.
But today? Today most of the families we serve come to their arrangement conferences wearing masks—and sometimes those conferences must be delayed because the decision-makers are in quarantine. They limit the number of people that will be in that room—and they stress that in any public announcement—if there is a public announcement at all—the words “The family requests that all visitors wear masks and maintain social distancing” be included. Some have even brought boxes of disposable paper masks to place beside the register book so anyone arriving unprepared won’t have to leave. Many have chosen to have a graveside service—out in the open where the fresh air can hopefully disperse any viral contaminants—with no visitation for friends beforehand. Some have chosen a private family service simply to limit the number of people with whom they will come in contact. Others will ask for their visitation to take place in the chapel if possible or at a church so there will be more room for those in attendance to spread out, to maintain that six feet of separation that has been drilled into our heads.
And what has brought about this change? Experience—the greatest teacher of some of the hardest lessons Life has to offer. So many families have been affected, so many have suffered but thankfully survived. But so many lives have been taken and so many have been left to grieve and wonder what could have been done differently to protect those they lost. Experience has made certain we learned these lessons it brought—but for many, those lessons came too late.
I look forward to the day when I can reach out and shake someone’s hand again . . . when I can hug a grieving friend, or even a stranger who needs that comfort. I long for the day when I can welcome people to our building with an understanding smile and they will see something other than the sides of my mask moving up. Just as much of the world does, I yearn for normal again, knowing full well that the new normal will never be as the old normal was. Too much has changed and too many are no longer with us. But hopefully, someday soon, families and friends can safely gather to bid a final farewell to someone they love. Hopefully, someday soon, those farewells will be fewer and much farther apart. Hopefully. Someday.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.