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Raise A Toast, Play A Song, Send A Card: Acknowledging Death At A Distance

A sign on the side of the road reading "vermont strong."
Abagael Giles
A Vermont Strong sign in Williston. Without traditional funerals for gathering and closure, funeral directors are coming up with other ways for those experiencing grief to connect and support one another.

One of the cruel realities of life since the COVID-19 pandemic struck is how it has changed the way we deal with death. When a loved one dies, there’s no longer an opportunity for closure, for saying goodbye among the close community of family and friends with words, tears and a heartfelt embrace.

But Michelle Acciavatti is thinking of other ways to bring solace to Vermonters. She's one of the funeral directors at Guare & Sons funeral homein Montpelier.

Michelle Acciavatti spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: This is the age of online-everything, as you know. And that was true even before this pandemic hit. But you have said that simply having an online funeral as a substitute is really not the best solution for everyone. Why is that?

Michelle Acciavatti: It's not just the physical distance, but it's also having to communicate through a screen using technology. I think the internet is a wonderful tool for connecting. But if you're not comfortable with it or you're not familiar with it, or you simply don't have access to it – and these are things that I think are particularly true in Vermont – it's maybe not the best tool.

Yes, they're coming together, but are they having the same needs met in that way? Or are we, in our striving for something that feels normal and familiar, overlooking kind of what is the purpose of coming together?

What are some of the suggestions that you have discussed with the people you work with and with others in the community who may be grieving that are outside of this, as you were just mentioning, this online kind of presence?

So one of things that I've been doing working with families, is to have them actually put an ask right in the obituary that says what can people do to let you know that they know that you've had this loss happen and that they're thinking of you, that they feel for you. What's something that would do that in a way that honors specifically the life of the person who has died. 

That I think has been resonating with people, because people do still read obituaries, they still get shared. It's a great way for people to find out that someone has died. So it's a really great way to spread a message that says, you know, “I would love to even just get cards.” It can be as simple as that. People tend not to send cards anymore.

More from VPR: 'My Mother Was My Best Friend': Remembering A Life Lost To COVID-19

When I was in a spot when I was grieving, when my mother-in-law passed away, the number of cards that I got, the time that someone took to hand-write a message to me, really meant a lot. So I've shared that with families, and that's been an ask that's gone out. And one thing that people always know is if you don't have someone's address, but you do know the funeral home that they're working with, the funeral home can make sure that things do reach families.

Some people have asked for everyone to raise a toast at a specific time. And then there can be things that come out of that that perhaps you can ask somebody to take a picture and send you a picture of them raising that toast, or send you a little note after they've done that. So it's a collective experience, that you're not in the same room and you're not doing it, but you're all doing the same thing. And then you can talk about what it felt like to raise a toast to that person. What was going through your head, what made you think about that person.

Vermont, especially such a small state, so many people, especially in smaller rural communities, they really know one another. Some have for decades, maybe their whole lives. How should we be thinking about and dealing with those ripple effects on the death of a community member?

I think this is so important because generally, that's what a wake or a visitation does, is it allows all the people whose lives have been touched by somebody to come together. And what's interesting in watching that happen, you know before the pandemic happened, is to see the circles of people. These are all the people that knew somebody in high school or knew them at this job or knew them when their kids were small and they coached Little League or something like that.

When you take away that visitation, that’s something that I worry about, people having a feeling that they can't express or explore. And I think that's another thing, where just the very small gesture of reaching out and even saying, “Hey, you might not know me, but I always used to run into your wife at the coffee shop, and we always had the nicest conversations, you know, before we'd go our separate ways to work in the morning.” Or just something, just sharing that memory, how you knew somebody. Or just, “I know how important they were to the food bank. And I'm going to make a donation to the food bank in their memory because of all the work they did volunteering there.”

And again, it helps the family feel seen, but it just also acknowledges our communities. I mean, even here in Montpelier, where I live, I mean, it's still a small town for being a city. And when people die, to recognize that, “Hey, this town is going to be a little different now without this person,” and the role that they played in it.

But nothing is too small or too silly, I think, for the family never to appreciate. And also to make a difference in your own life, and to acknowledge what you're feeling and to get those needs met as well.

Are you sharing ideas with other folks who do the same job you do?

I think I would love to see more collaboration. In Vermont, in a lot of ways we were bracing for the situation that we've heard reported from in New York or in Massachusetts or New Jersey, where we were all going to be super overwhelmed as funeral directors. But it really did focus on the logistics and having conversations about this type of thing has been a little harder.

We're not overwhelmed with work, but death goes on the same way that life goes on. So we're all very busy, and we also are not able to have sort of our annual meetings. There hasn't been a chance for funeral directors to come together and kind of organically have these conversations. So I would love to see this conversation become a broader, more statewide conversation.

More from VPR: End-Of-Life Wishes In A Pandemic

And I think it’s what you said earlier: a lot of this is very relevant, whether we're in a pandemic or not. We're more spread out now in terms of where we live. People can’t always come back for the funeral. People can't take time off work. So I don't think these ideas are ever going to lose their relevance going forward.

You know, right now, it might look a little weird to have something in the obituary – it's not standard to have an ask in an obituary that says, “Hey, you know, at 3 o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, will you play this Tom Petty song? Because it was their favorite song.” That's not generally something that you see. But I think that it's great. It's pretty easy for everyone to do.

And so against just normalize seeing things like that in obituaries will help us as we continue to navigate how this is going to look, and how funerals will be shaped coming forward and coming out of this.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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