Grieving family gets ‘partial closure’ at small burial service

| June 22, 2020 | 0 Comments

Barbara Bovy, center, touches an urn containing the remains of her husband, Jerry, during a rite of committal May 8 at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights. Joining her are her daughter, Gretchen Tentis, left, and Barbara’s brother, Tom Strong. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Barbara and Jerry Bovy met in the first grade at Holy Spirit School in St. Paul nearly 80 years ago.

Romance developed during their senior year of high school — he went to Cretin, she went to Monroe — and they married in 1956. The bond deepened, and so did Jerry’s love for woodworking. He made various pieces of furniture for family and friends over the years, including a short stand for Sister Fran Donnelly, whom he met in 1985 when she worked with Barbara at St. Thomas the Apostle in St. Paul (now merged with Blessed Sacrament).

The precious piece of hand-crafted wood came full circle after Jerry died April 21. It was used as a stand for the cherrywood urn containing his ashes during a small burial service at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights May 8. It was an important part of the service, called rite of committal, which was severely downsized due to restrictions on burials and funerals during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

For Barbara, 85, and a member of Blessed Sacrament, it was something tangible to connect her with her husband, whom she saw only once during the final five weeks of his life because he was quarantined at a hospital in Arizona, where they lived during the winter months. Her sole visit was just a few days before he died, when he was unresponsive and bedridden. The couple talked by phone the day he died, but Jerry hardly spoke, his voice garbled, Barbara said. 

Jerry, who was 84, died of heart failure and complications from polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disorder that attacks the muscles and mostly afflicts elderly people. He never contracted COVID-19.

The separation intensified Barbara’s grief, which began even before he died.

“If my mom could have seen him when he was responsive, and when they could have kissed each other and he could have maybe held her hand, that would have been really nice,” said the Bovys’ daught er, Gretchen Tentis of Guardian Angels in Oakdale, who helped Barbara navigate the COVID-19 restrictions and provided some company during the days when she was apart from Jerry.

That her mom didn’t see her dad responsive at their final visit “probably was the hardest thing,” she added.

“I wanted to just hug him” during the last visit, Barbara said. “Actually, I wanted to lay down next to him and hold him, (but) I couldn’t because he was in such a narrow bed. It was so sad.”

To make matters worse, at the time, public Masses were suspended due to the pandemic, which meant Barbara could not go to Mass and pray for Jerry. It was agonizing for her, and she reached out to Sister Fran, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who began helping her with funeral and burial arrangements.

COVID-19 restrictions limited the number of people who were invited to attend. Also, people had to stay 6 feet apart and wear masks, though they did take them off during the final part of the rite of committal, which took place outside the cemetery’s mausoleum. Sister Fran, director of LifeTransition Ministries at The Catholic Cemeteries and who has worked with grieving families to plan funerals and burials, invited the group to watch cemetery workers lift the urn to its final resting place in a niche in the mausoleum wall.

Moments before this took place, Sister Fran invited Barbara to come forward near the urn, the cherrywood box. Gretchen and her husband, Dave Tentis, joined Barbara. It was Barbara’s only chance to say goodbye to Jerry, and it was an emotional moment as she placed her fingers on top of the box. Sister Fran then took the box off of the stand Jerry had made for her and handed her the box to hold before it was placed in the mausoleum niche.

“I felt very, very peaceful,” Barbara said. “Part of that was Fran and part of that was these beautiful surroundings (at Resurrection Cemetery).”

“It was the start of some closure for us, which means the world,” Gretchen added.

Sister Fran was moved as well, fighting to hold her composure as she led prayers of committal for her “extremely faith-filled” friend. Although she has 12 years of experience working with grieving families, doing so during a pandemic is different, and the burial service with the Bovy family was one of her first chances to navigate this new reality. Handing the urn to Barbara was a spontaneous idea she hoped would add meaning and make the service more personal.

“I just thought, ‘There had to be some (physical) touch,’” Sister Fran said. “There had to be some way to give them something in which they could reach out and say, ‘Bye, Jerry.’ … It’s just the power of touch. Even though it’s through wood and it’s his cremated remains inside, it’s the best they could do because none of them could be there to hold his hand (when he was dying), touch his arm. You’ve got to do what you can do, I think, to allow people some expression of intimacy.”

Sister Fran added her own personal expression when she helped Barbara plan the rite of committal and burial. Reflecting on the “number of things” in her home made by Jerry, she happened to glance at the stand one day and thought “that stand would be perfect for the urn.”

She also came up with the idea of a wooden urn, made by the Trappist monks in Iowa. The combination of a stand and urn each made of wood was in keeping with who Jerry was, she said, making it fitting for his rite of committal. She placed the urn on top of the stand for the service.

The 2 1/2-foot stand was one of the last pieces he made for her, she said, and she received it sometime within the last decade. After having used it for Jerry’s rite of committal, she will treasure it all the more, she said. 

The Bovy family plans to have a memorial Mass at Blessed Sacrament so more people can pay final respects. But, with some restrictions still in place, the timing is uncertain. Recently, the rules were loosened to allow 50% of a church to be filled for public Masses, with a maximum of 250 people.

“Right now, we don’t have any idea when we can have a memorial Mass,” Gretchen said. She called the May 8 committal rite “a partial closure, but we won’t have full closure until we have that memorial Mass.”

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