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Loved ones forgo memorials as coronavirus limits funeral gatherings

Gary Patterson will live on in life-partner Phil Edinger’s memory as a lanky, neat, self-?deprecating storyteller. Their paths crossed at Cal Poly Pomona more than 50 years ago, noticing each other in a landscape design class before Edinger made a move. They would go on to buy a home near the Asti Winery in the late 1960s, living many happy years together, even through a neuropathy that debilitated Patterson in his final years.

Patterson, 80, died March 15 and his body has been cremated, though Edinger hasn’t planned a memorial service - that’s on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nobody’s going to want to come to anything that I might schedule soon,” Edinger said in an interview Monday. “Nor would I necessarily want to have anybody coming.”

Any traditional memorial service would have, until Wednesday, run afoul of Sonoma County’s shelter-in-place order, which aims to curb the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. County officials, in their first order, called out funeral and burial services as examples of prohibited gatherings; an updated extension makes it clear that funerals and burial services are allowed as long as no more than 10 people are physically present.

So, Edinger is among an increasing number of Sonoma County residents who have seen the coronavirus upend life by thwarting how they mark the death of loved ones.

Local funeral homes report more families opting to delay memorial services for their loved ones, hoping the pandemic subsides before too long. Meanwhile, morticians are trying to balance the human inclination to grieve in large groups against Sonoma County’s isolation order, an irreconcilable conflict that’s prompted some to search for alternatives to traditional ceremonies.

The pandemic and its economic and socially restrictive effects are stressful enough before the added pain of telling someone who’s recently lost a loved one that full funerals aren’t allowed, said Matthew Disbrow, general manager at the Santa Rosa Mortuary, Eggen & Lance Chapel and Fred Young Funeral Home in Sonoma County

“All the families that we’ve met are on edge,” Disbrow said, adding: “People relieve their stress on us. We understand that.”

The moves to first ban and then limit the scope of funerals came as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb, topping 4,500 on Wednesday, including one man in his 60s in Sonoma County. A veteran Santa Rosa police officer who lived in American Canyon died Tuesday, marking Napa County’s first coronavirus death.

Sonoma County’s shelter order is more specific and at least as strict as California’s rules, which ban nonessential public events and gatherings but do not single out funerals or burials. Both orders seeks to prevent a sharp spike in sick patients that could overwhelm local hospitals and force medical professionals with strained supplies and limited capacity to make heartbreaking decisions between life and death.

The rules against large memorials are not without reason.

After the town of Albany in Georgia saw a rapid rise in coronavirus cases that overwhelmed a local hospital, health officials traced the outbreak back to two funerals that were held before any positive COVID-19 case had been recorded in the state, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month.

To stem risks, many local families are opting for cremations or burials shortly after death while postponing a traditional memorial service, hoping that months from now, the coronavirus pandemic will have subsided enough for family and friends to get together and celebrate their loved ones. The delays have been hard on families, particularly those with more detailed plans, said Jim Smith, co-owner of Lafferty and Smith Colonial Chapel.

“They have plans for a funeral with all the bells and whistles,” Smith said, “and they just couldn’t do it.”

Some are opting to have the bodies of their loved ones stored, Smith said, noting that the remains can be held for weeks or even months if embalmed and refrigerated.

While some local funeral homes are able to offer virtual services, such as livestreaming funerals that can allow people to tune in remotely, those types of remote ceremonies aren’t popular, said Wes Daniels, co-owner of Daniels Chapel of the Roses.

“That’s not something that has really taken off as a replacement for funerals,” he said. “Most families are hoping to be able to gather in a month or two.”

Disbrow noted he’s also had calls with people who have COVID-19 and who worry they’ll be shunned if they die from the disease.

“They’re feeling like they’re going to be turned away or they’ll have to be cremated, and that’s simply not true,” he said.

Meanwhile, for those going forward with a funeral, some traditional practices, such as open-casket viewings, now come with new guidance.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 from a body is not fully known yet but it is much lower than the chance of catching the virus from a living person, since the virus is most easily transmitted in droplet form through coughing, sneezing and exhaling.

“This route of transmission is not a concern when handling human remains or performing postmortem procedures,” the state Department of Public Health dryly noted in a set of guidelines for health care facilities.

But since the coronavirus can linger on surfaces, morticians should caution people against bidding farewell in ways that involve physical touch, said Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association.

“People want to touch somebody or kiss them goodbye,” Achermann said. “You really have to discourage that."

Edinger, the Cloverdale resident, has put up a photo of Patterson on the piano in their home. Patterson’s cremains are in a book-sized mahogany box that’s tucked among tomes on a shelf above Edinger’s computer - a resting place that Edinger says brings him comfort.

The postponement of Patterson’s memorial meant Edinger didn’t have the extra stress of having to immediately plan a gathering ­- “an odd thing to be thankful for,” he noted.

“The virus has bought me some time,” he said. “There’s enough to be dealing with without having to plan something and put on a good face.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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