The Subject

Half Mag / Half Zine

‘Awful and beautiful’: Saying goodbye to coronavirus victims without a funeral

Lorena Borjas dedicated her life to helping others as an activist for the transgender community in New York City, bailing people out of jail, fighting against transphobia and championing the rights of human trafficking victims.

But when she died this week from COVID-19, the people who loved her the most could not come together to mourn her.

“She held people together,” said Chase Strangio, a longtime friend and collaborator. “When you lose someone like that, you long for a sense of connecting.”

Saying goodbye to a loved one is a ritual that transcends social and cultural differences. Even in secular societies, survivors participate in some combination of prayer and remembrance to honor the departed. These traditions are being upended as governments across the globe impose strict social distancing orders, forcing people to find new ways to grieve.

“We created a Zoom,” Strangio said. “It was the only thing we knew to do.”

Borjas died Monday morning in New York, which has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. By 7 p.m., more than 200 people logged on for the virtual remembrance.

The experience felt both overwhelming and incomplete, said Strangio, who helped organize the event. He watched helplessly as people cried alone in their apartments. There were no hugs or shared meals to affirm life. Instead, people typed comments in the chat section or posted photos of Borjas online.

“We have a community of people who already feel like they’re at risk of death all the time,” Strangio said. “The memorial was awful and beautiful.”

Dr. Steven Thrasher, a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, was one of the many people who logged on for Borjas’ memorial. He has been stuck in New York since the coronavirus outbreak brought the city to a standstill and is grateful to be staying with friends instead of alone in his Chicago apartment.

Still, Thrasher felt a sense of anger while watching the memorial service online. Borjas always showed up when people needed her, he said. She frequently accompanied sex workers to court appearances. It was her way of humanizing some of society’s most vulnerable members and comforting them during their darkest hours. But when Borjas died, no one could be there for her.

“It felt very strange and alienating to be bearing witness as a small square on a screen,” Thrasher said.

Nearly all faith traditions offer end-of-life ceremonies. The ritual is so important, people are willing to risk their health just to attend one. Earlier this week, 70 people gathered in a New Jersey residence for a funeral despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home order. At least 15 attendees were charged with violating a rule or regulation adopted by the governor during a state of emergency.

In Georgia, 200 people recently came together to remember the life of a retired janitor. Days after the service, about two dozen relatives who attended the funeral fell ill, The New York Times reported. Epidemiologists are calling it a “super-spreading event.”

Planning a funeral or deciding whether to attend one during the pandemic can be a devastating choice for survivors. A lack of closure could delay emotional healing while prolonged self-isolation might trigger depression, mental health experts warn. Many families simply feel lost, their grief exacerbated by anxiety about a worsening crisis.

Kenan Kapetanovic, director of operations and funeral director at the Islamic Center of Southern California, has been helping families navigate end-of-life ceremonies at a time when gatherings of any kind are prohibited throughout the state. Kapetanovic said families are no longer invited to view remains, and they cannot meet with staff in-person to arrange services.