When Francis Barela died May 8 at the age of 91, his family wanted to plan a large funeral with full military honors, recognizing his service in the U.S. Air Force.
But COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings such as funerals meant that couldn’t happen. At least, not in the way his family envisioned.
Barela’s widow, Cecilia Barela, said officials at Santa Fe National Cemetery told the family her husband’s remains could still be buried there, but no more than five family members could attend and they would have to observe from their vehicles or curbside.
“We didn’t want to do that, so his [cremated] remains are with us here at the house,” said Jacqueline Barela, Francis’ daughter.
Families like the Barelas are waiting for the day when life returns to normal, and loved ones can be buried according to their families’ wishes.
Until then, they say, mourning feels incomplete.
In the interim, the Barelas say they’ve been heartened by the kindness of friends and family who have reached out to comfort them. Many prepare food for the family.
“But they just bring it to the door,” Jacqueline Barela said. “We can’t hug them. We just wave at them from the window.”
Other families going through the grieving process tell similar stories.
Therese Moulton said her family faced a hard choice when her 84-year-old mother, Viola Martinez — a former secretary at Santa Fe’s Vocational Technical School and various state agencies — died earlier this month.
The family had planned to bury Martinez at the National Cemetery next to her husband, Benito Martinez, who had served in the U.S. Army. They, too, were distressed to learn only five people could attend the burial. But they decided to go ahead because they didn’t want her mother’s body to be in limbo while they waited for the restrictions on large gatherings to be lifted.
“We were not happy that she would literally be in the freezer for this long time,” Moulton said. “It was sort of a courtesy to her. We are missing the closure with a priest and clergy giving their blessings. But we thought it would be important for her to be buried. We were very eager to go ahead and get that part of her life settled.”
When her father died 12 years ago, Moulton said, his mourners filled the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. When her mother’s remains were buried Wednesday, only the honorary pallbearers — five of Martinez’s seven grandchildren — were there to represent the family.
“They were proud and honored” to send their grandmother off, Moulton said, but the lack of a funeral with family and friends has made the loss even more difficult.
“A lot of folks are sending cards and best wishes, but it just doesn’t feel like closure yet,” Moulton said, adding the family intends to hold a celebration of her mother’s life sometime in the future but does not yet know when or where.
Berardinelli Family Funeral Service funeral director Jacob Shaw says the company has encouraged families to postpone funerals until they can gather to support one another. But it has adjusted the way it does business to accommodate those who can’t.
When Berardinelli hosts a funeral service, it sets aside its entire facility and designates set times over an entire day so people can pay their respects five at a time. Gloves and masks are provided to those who don’t have their own, Shaw said. The rooms where viewings are held are sanitized between each group’s arrival.
Last month, Shaw said, the business equipped one of its rooms with cameras and is now offering mourners the option of having the small services webcast live for remote viewing free of charge.
“It makes it difficult because families really need each other,” Shaw said, adding he has nearly a dozen families waiting to hold funerals over the next few months.
Rivera Family Funerals and Cremations funeral director Bob Clifford said the firm also has seen family members struggling to find closure under the restrictions. But he said the business hopes to begin transitioning back to more traditional ways of doing business in the next week or so if restrictions are eased as expected.
Cecilia Barela said she knows her family isn’t the only one suffering.
“Just wait until this horrible thing is over, and take your time,” she said. “It will take some time to get over it. But we will all get through this together.”
Until then, she is keeping her husband’s ashes in an urn on her mantle.
“I come in here to look at him all the time,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I say good night to him. To me, it’s like he’s still with us. But it’s been very difficult.”