Unable To Mourn: A Cemetery Confronts The Coronavirus

Joseph Ariale led quite a life.

A project manager at GE Capital and longtime Norwalker, he did it all: handing out flags at the Memorial Day parade, volunteering at the Oyster Festival, supporting children’s organizations.

He was a golfer and tennis player; a kind, generous and spirited man; a devoted grandfather who never missed a dance recital, sports game or any other event.

Joseph died last week, after battling cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. As a Korean War veteran, he was entitled to a full military funeral. A bugler should have played “Taps,” and presented an American flag to his family.

But Joseph died in the middle of a pandemic. Instead of being mourned by hundreds of family members, friends and fans, there was no celebration of life.

Following CDC guidelines, his burial at Willowbrook Cemetery was limited to 8 people. Pallbearers wore N95 masks.

Mourners and cemetery officials at Joseph Ariale’s burial on Friday.

The coronavirus has changed the way everyone lives. Now it’s affecting what happens even after we die.

Joseph’s final goodbye on Friday was not the only one at the beautiful cemetery on North Main Street, opposite Cross Highway.

A few hours earlier, another tiny crowd said goodbye to Connie Wilds. She earned 2 master’s degrees. She served Western Connecticut State University for over 30 years, as a professor of black studies and dean of student affairs. She sang in her church choir, and was a founder of the Stamford Afro-Democratic Committee.

Her entombment was witnessed by only 5 people — including funeral staff. That left only her son William, and his wife Daisy, to bid their final farewell.

“This is surreal,” William said. “We can’t give my mother a proper sendoff.”

From left: William Wilds; Daisy Wilds and funeral director Karen Graves-Medley of Stamford, at Connie Wilds’ entombment.

Even more sorrowfully, the few mourners must stay 6 feet apart. They can’t hug, or offer a literal shoulder to cry on.

“This is so difficult,” says Danny Amoruccio, manager/sexton of Willowbrook Cemetery Association.  “They’re being stopped from doing what comes naturally to all of us: grieving together.”

Relatives and friends understand, he says. But at a time of intense pain, it’s one more burden to bear.

Daily operations at the cemetery have been whittled down to just sales of property, and scheduling of burials and entombments.

One section of the vast cemetery.

All communication is initiated by phone. There is minimal contact with the family.

The many other usual queries — where is someone buried? can I buy a monument? — are deferred to May, or done impersonally by phone or email.

Many families call just to verify their property. “They want the comfort of knowing that their deed and final plans are in place,” the manager says.

But Amoruccio still has work to do. In fact, recently — during what is normally a very quiet quarter — sales of graves spiked significantly, to 40 per month.

Families are securing property for their elderly parents — or themselves. They tell him directly: “With the coronavirus, we have to be prepared. We don’t want to run around at the last minute, taking care of final arrangements.”

When Amoruccio meets a family to sell property, he now speaks to them — no more than 2 people — outside their car. They follow him to view it, from the comfort of their vehicle.

If they see a property they’d like to purchase, he heads to his office to write up a contract. The family never goes inside. That once-comforting moment is gone too.

The newest section at Willowbrook Cemetery.

This month, Willowbrook completed an extension of its property. Earlier they bought a house on Richmondville Avenue, and razed it. They can now accommodate 500 additional burials, or 100 cremations.

So far, the cemetery has served one family whose loved one succumbed to COVID-19. They’ve received one additional call about a deceased person with the disease.

“We don’t treat them any differently,” Amoruccio notes.

He feels very badly for what mourners go through during this pandemic. “You see the frustration in their faces when it comes to the restriction of mourners” — once 10, now down to 5.

“But they seem to understand it’s for their own good. I hear in Italy, 2 family members are allowed at the burial. Or none — just the funeral director and cemetery staff.”

He is grateful that Willowbrook’s gates are open 24/7. Mourners can visit loved ones’ graves any time. Those who are barred from the burial have, at least, that chance to grieve.

And though dogs are not allowed on the property, Amoruccio sees a dramatic increase in walkers. “Visitors are always welcome to enjoy the peace and solitude here at Willowbrook,” he says.

The cemetery’s “daffodil mile” — the gorgeous rows of flowers fronting North Main Street — will bloom soon. The dozens of flowering trees — which always herald springtime in that part of town — will be even more beautiful and welcome this year.

Willowbrook Cemetery — established in 1847, and partly designed by Frederick Law Olmsted — is a non-profit community resource, Amoruccio notes.

“No one wants to think about an increase in deaths in our area,” he says. “But for me personally, I feel valuable right now. More than ever, we can be available for families at the worst of times.”

Even if death in the age of coronavirus robs those families of one of humanity’s most basic needs: saying a final goodbye.

One response to “Unable To Mourn: A Cemetery Confronts The Coronavirus

  1. Audrey Rabinowitz

    Joe will be missed.

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