Oktibbeha County cemetery sees increase in outdoor burial ceremonies as COVID-19 limits size of funerals

OKTIBBEHA COUNTY, MISS. (WCBI) – Nearly five thousands Mississippians have lost their lives due to COVID-19 and the challenges continue for loved ones who have to deal with safety restrictions as they make funeral arrangements.

“It’s just really sad when you can’t properly say goodbye to a loved one because of the [pandemic],” says Lula Davis, who has to bury her 25-year-old daughter after she passed away following a battle with leukemia.

A heartbreaking tragedy at any time, it has been even more difficult for Davis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t want too many people there because I’m afraid for their health,” she says.

That has been the reality many families have faced in Mississippi.

With indoor gatherings limited to 10 people or less, cemeteries like Memorial Garden Park in Oktibbeha County are seeing more and more large graveside ceremonies.

“Usually people will come out there, just the family and you may have 20 people come out there to a service,” says cemetery manager Russ Houston. “But now their whole funeral is happening right here on the grounds.”

Houston says they have had so many large services that the cemetery is expanding its parking areas.

“I can think of one, it was a well-loved Starkville person, and we were packed here,” Houston remembers. “There must’ve been 200 people here.”

While state orders require outdoor gatherings be limited to 50 people or less, Houston says the cemetery is not strictly enforcing that order.

“One person had a young child die and that one, I couldn’t enforce that,” Houston says. “And she was in tears saying ‘My family’s very large, I can’t pick 20 people that I’m going to decide to come.'”

He says he lets families know the current guidelines, reminds them to wear masks and leaves the rest to their judgment.

“Make sure everybody has a mask, I’ve always said that,” Houston says. “Whether they obey those or not remains to be seen. Most people that I’ve seen have had masks on.”

But Davis isn’t taking any chances as she says goodbye to her daughter.

“That’s what I hate about it,” she says. “She’ll get a good sendoff but it won’t be as it was before the COVID.”

Houston also says they have seen a 25 percent increase in cremations as some families wish to hold onto their loved one’s remains and wait for a time where they can safely hold the service they want to without any restrictions.

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