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A family was told they couldn’t be at their parents’ burial. Then Fresno County changed its mind

Agustin and Antonia Gordillo were buried April 15 at Fresno Memorial Gardens, with family members present.
Agustin and Antonia Gordillo were buried April 15 at Fresno Memorial Gardens, with family members present.
(Google)

The six siblings stood around the closed caskets at Fresno Memorial Gardens, standing six feet apart with flowers in hand as a priest gave his blessings to their parents.

On the cemetery road were 10 cars, parked with their windows open, passengers peeking out to watch.

It wasn’t how this family imagined saying their final goodbyes to their parents, 82-year-old Antonia Gordillo and 85-year-old Agustin Gordillo, who both died in early April from COVID-19. But it was much more than they were initially promised, said daughter Aida Alvarez.

After being told no burial or funeral gatherings would be allowed, the family pushed back. Within a day, Fresno County changed course and allowed the family to be present at the burial Wednesday.

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“They wanted to just film it and send it to us, and we were not OK with that,” Alvarez said. “I basically told them that we wanted at least 10 minutes of time with them and for us to be able to be allowed to give them a proper Catholic burial.”

Tradition has had to take a backseat to precaution during the coronavirus crisis. ‘It’s a different form of ministry,’ observes one chaplain.

The family’s experience showcases how, with no clear guidelines to follow on burials, counties continue to make difficult decisions on the fly.

Across the country, funeral directors are refusing to hold funeral services in chapels or are limiting services to small graveside burials with no more than 10 people present.

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Others are broadcasting video streams of ceremonies for their loved ones, or recording burials for families. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended livestreaming funerals and limiting physical attendance to immediate family members.

“In my opinion, having closure to bury your parents is one of those essential things we should be able to do.”

Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco

Alvarez said after her parents were transferred to a funeral home, her family was told a burial was scheduled for April 15. At the direction of county health officials, the family was not invited and instead was offered a recording.

Determined for something more, Alvarez got in touch with local officials, including Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco.

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Pacheco was notified of the family’s concerns Monday evening and presented their case during a Tuesday board meeting, with health officials present.

“Every day we each run a risk by leaving our homes, but we have to go to the grocery store and do these essential things,” Pacheco said. “In my opinion, having closure to bury your parents is one of those essential things we should be able to do.”

On that premise, the supervisors came to an agreement that 10 direct family members would be allowed near the casket and would need to stand six feet apart and wear masks. In addition, 10 cars were allowed into the cemetery, but passengers could not leave the vehicles.

That wasn’t ideal, Alvarez said, but it was understandable under the circumstances. “They could have easily said, ‘It is what it is. Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.’”

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Fresno County health officials were initially adamant about not allowing any services at funeral homes or cemeteries, partly because of concerns that these services were spreading the virus in other parts of the country, Pacheco said. In this family’s case, most of the Gordillos’ children had already tested positive for the virus after caring for them, and were quarantined with their families.

So far, Fresno County has just seven deaths and 295 positive cases, a lower rate than other counties of a similar size.

Pacheco said that, because there were no clear guidelines, the Fresno County Health Department had been leaning toward banning all funerals until stay-at-home orders were lifted.

“That’s the easy decision. But it’s not the compassionate thing to do,” Pacheco said.

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However, if any family were to break the guidelines, the county would revert to a blanket ban. So far, that has not been the case. On Wednesday, the funeral went smoothly.

The priest, a family friend, stood well over six feet from the casket and family members as he spoke kind words about the Gordillos. Cemetery employees also kept their distance, and a sheriff’s deputy standing by outside was not needed, Pacheco said.

Two siblings stood particularly far away from their parents’ caskets because they hadn’t tested positive for the virus as the others had. When the priest concluded the ceremony, each approached their parents separately, hugging the caskets before leaving their flowers and saying goodbye.


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