Warren funeral directors find new ways to help families grieve

Restrictions limit funerals and wakes, but directors are trying to use technology to bring families together at trying time

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Even in the best of times, Catherine Tattrie has a hard job. Now, with Covid-19 restrictions limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people, the funeral director and owner of Smith Funeral and Memorial Services on Schoolhouse Road has seen the pain she normally helps quell go through the roof:

“Usually it’s brutal, but now it’s heart-breaking,” she said Monday.

Funeral directors across Rhode Island, including Smith and Wilbur-Romano on Main Street, are facing the same trying conditions. Since Gov. Gina Raimondo last week put bans in place that limit how many people can gather together out of fear of spreading the virus, the traditional process of grieving, with wakes, memorial services, funerals and graveside services, has been turned sideways.

“Families are not being able to grieve in the traditional way,” said funeral director Christen Bergeson of Wilbur-Romano. “Now, it’s a very small version of the funeral rite. Families are struggling and we are doing what we can to help them.”

The restrictions’ impact was clear at Smith this past Friday, as Ms. Tattrie and her employees hosted wake services for a much-loved Warren man who passed away unexpectedly earlier this month. He and his widow had been friends with Ms. Tattrie for years, and she said it was very difficult to give the family the services they needed given the state mandates.

“There were so many people who wanted to say good-bye to him,” she said. “We just had to do the best we could. The biggest problem is that these poor families are not able to get the support they need from family and friends.”

On Friday, the funeral home invited members of the public in to pay their respects, though the family was not there at the time. Mourners were given the opportunity to sign a guest book and grieve, but ushers were forced to keep small groups distanced. A graveside service was held the next day.

In general, “we keep the front lobby empty,” Ms. Tattrie said. “No one’s allowed to linger there. In our chapel we can have 10 people there, and there’s a camera that can put that (feed) into the next two rooms.”

Both Ms. Bergeson and Ms. Tattrie said that though they aren’t able to offer the depth of services families expected in less complicated times, technology has helped. Smith’s purchase of smart TVs, video cameras and other equipment has been a benefit, and Ms. Bergeson added that the use of streaming video services, such as Zoom, has been crucial.

“We are keeping within the (size limits), and we’re also able to live stream,” she said. “We’re doing arrangements for people who are uncomfortable coming in, and we’re loading people onto Zoom. Every technological resource we can use, we are trying to.”

Still, she said, it’s not easy:

“Funerals look very different now than they did a week ago.”

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.