Pandemic changed funeral rituals in rural areas.



Linda Geist

COLUMBIA, Mo. – For five generations, the James O’Donnell Funeral Home has held the hands and hearts of grieving northeastern Missouri families as they said their goodbyes.

Fifth-generation owner Jimmy O’Donnell says no time in history challenged him and other rural funeral directors more than the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restrictions on public gatherings during the pandemic kept many rural people from following century-old death rituals, says Tashel Bordere, a certified thanatologist with University of Missouri Extension. Bordere is a nationally recognized researcher and speaker on death, dying and loss, focusing on marginalized populations.

Already physically separated by farmland, rural families dealt with grief and stress that came from the loss of other routines—church services, family dinners, school and sporting events and, yes, funerals.

Bordere says the pandemic suffocated the grieving process in rural communities where people often meet in large numbers for funeral visitations, graveside rites and funeral dinners.

These traditions offer survivors comfort and community support, says Bordere. They see the physical presence of others as signs of respect and recognition of a person’s role in the family and community, Bordere says. They take comfort in knowing that their grief is shared.

Funeral homes hold dear to tradition, but the pandemic required them to adapt their practices by limiting in-person attendance and livestreaming services, though the latter option was sometimes complicated by a lack of reliable internet access in rural areas, says O’Donnell.

Technology allowed people to say goodbye from a distance, but it also left a void once filled by face-to-face, heart-to-heart interactions. Without the ability to share those losses, grief intensifies and lives in the shadows. “Nobody can see your grief,” Bordere says.

O’Donnell says he saw a return to the old-fashioned art of letter writing for sharing memories and words of comfort. Letters and phone calls helped mourners grieve together while alone.

In reviewing funeral home records, O’Donnell learned that his great-grandfather faced similar experiences during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which claimed tens of millions of lives, including more than 675,000 Americans. The dead were often buried quickly in simple services with few attending.

In addition to changes surrounding funerals, rural families faced other kinds of loss during the pandemic, though they may not have been able to name these losses or even consider that they would require grief responses, Bordere says.

Like many populations, rural residents have dealt with ambiguity and stress related to economic shifts and social issues. In some cases, people experience “suffocated grief,” a term Bordere coined to represent the penalties such as job loss or punishment at school that bereaved people may pay for normal expressions of grief. Ambiguous losses, a concept attributed to researcher Pauline Boss, are losses with no clear resolution, answer or ending in sight. They are difficult to explain, affect decision-making and ultimately complicate feelings of grief, says Bordere. Examples include the loss of control over normal routines and making plans. Bordere says it is important to recognize and validate these feelings that come with losses and life transitions.

Social distancing threatened jobs, which were already in short supply in rural areas and were often the source of health insurance for off-farm workers in the family. Additionally, uncertainty about the length of the pandemic loomed large.

“People have been living in that space for a year,” Bordere says. “When you don’t know what’s around the corner for such an extended period of time, stress can set in. I want to emphasize that stress and grief are completely normal reactions to this level of uncertainty.”

As restrictions lifted, many found themselves thrown back into work and school without time to grieve or think about their next steps. “Before you get two seconds to get centered, you’re back in the intense throes of life,” she says.

For many, this “delayed grief” may find resolution on Memorial Day and this summer in family get-togethers and in gatherings organized by O’Donnell and other funeral directors who have continued to work with grieving families. Recently, they began helping families of COVID-19 victims apply for funeral assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Learn more at

“The important thing to realize is that it’s OK to remember and celebrate on a delayed timeline,” says O’Donnell. If someone died a year ago but you were unable to grieve due to the pandemic, get together as a family in a cemetery, a home or a restaurant and share those stories that put you on the road to healing, he says.

Life is not just about the end point but all of the memories along the way that we need to celebrate, especially this Memorial Day, O’Donnell says.

Tashel Bordere works with MU Extension health and safety specialist Karen Funkenbusch on the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center grant funded under USDA-NIFA #2020-70028-32728. The grant works to help rural residents find resources and support for stress reduction and suicide prevention. For more information, visit

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