No time to say goodbye: Korean families struggle with funeral changes amid COVID-19

May 29, 2020 Center for Cooperative Media

By Kwangok Sung and Hyong Sook Jun

Editor’s note: This is the English translation of the original story, which was first published in Korean by K-Radio. This version has been updated and edited, with permission from the author(s) and publisher(s), for length and clarity.

NEW JERSEY — In less than three months after the first reported fatality in the United States, the coronavirus death toll in New Jersey has surpassed 11,000.

How many Koreans in New Jersey have so far died of the coronavirus?

As of May 24, according to the New Jersey Department of Health statistics, about 5 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state were Asian. Since New Jersey is home to over 100,000 Koreans, an estimated 150 Koreans have died from COVID-19 in the Garden State.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the funeral services and mourning process, making it more complicated and tedious, especially for immigrant communities in New York and New Jersey.

Due to concerns about spreading the virus, many funeral services have been cancelled. Rather than mourning, the prohibition on public gatherings has made it almost impossible to memorialize those who have died during this pandemic. 

This has been a difficult situation for many Korean families, causing them a lot of anxiety and frustration. Aside from the exorbitant funeral costs, the grieving family could not believe that the death of their loved one seemed to be meaningless.

In the Korean culture, friends, relatives and neighbors usually gather together for days to mourn the death of a family member. In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, this culture has not been observed.

In addition, backlogs at crematoria and public cemeteries are building up, with some families facing a wait of several weeks before funerals can take place. The pressure is also mounting on mortuary space.

On April 20, a Korean resident of Northwood, NJ, said that his mother died of COVID-19 in a nursing home. When he called several funeral homes, he was informed that he had to wait for at least four weeks before his mother’s remains could be cremated. While waiting, he had to pay $100 a day to refrigerate her body.

“Many people are dying of COVID-19, but charging excessive funeral expenses is another pain for all families who have lost a loved one,” he said.

This story was produced as part of a four-month COVID-19 reporting fellowship with NJ ethnic and community media organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

, , , , , ,