Ramona Brown — Mona to her friends and family — was a shoulder-to-the-wheel kind of woman, the sort who worked hard and made the most of what she had.
She picked pineapples for Maui Pine, worked as a certified nurse assistant at Hale Makua and was a custodian for the county at the Eddie Tam Memorial Center in Makawao. In retirement she tended to her yard, made coveted crochet lei for her friends and never let her family win at rummy.
She told her sons not to expect many people at her funeral. And at age 90, it’s true, Brown had outlived so many of her friends and contemporaries.
Still, there were plenty whose lives she had touched who, in any other time and circumstance, would have packed the pews at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Makawao to say one last goodbye.
Like many other families who have lost loved ones over the last two months, members of the Brown ohana found themselves hard-pressed give their matriarch a fitting memorial after she died April 12, while still ensuring the safety of the living.
Local mortuaries, too, have had to adapt by enforcing strict social-distancing requirements and providing alternatives to traditional funeral and memorial ceremonies.
Ballard Family Mortuaries’ two locations on Maui are enforcing a 10-person limit at viewings in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and state guidelines for gatherings, according to the company’s website. Visitors must observe the 6-feet-apart social- distancing advisory and are asked to wash their hands before and after visiting. Those who have visited an area with a high incidence of COVID-19, have been in contact with someone infected with the virus or are experiencing flu-like symptoms are not allowed to enter.
Similar precautions have been adopted at Nakamura Mortuary in Wailuku, where even prior to the pandemic, renovations were undertaken and equipment installed to allow memorial services and viewings to be livestreamed to those unable to attend in person.
MAUI Memorial Park and Nakamura Mortuary are part of the Houston-based NorthStar Memorial Group, which also owns Diamond Head Mortuary, Valley of the Temples and Hawaiian Memorial Park Mortuary in Kaneohe, Homelani Memorial Park and Crematory in Hilo and Kona Memorial Park. The privately held company partnered with Sympathy Brands to develop its own platforms for interactive, online funerals and memorial experiences that can accommodate up to 500 guests.
Nakamura Location Manager Tony Munoz said that before Gov. David Ige extended the stay-at-home edict to May 31, many people were holding off on conducting funerals, hoping the measures would soon be lifted. “Now that the restrictions have been extended, people have started going forward with their services, with only small groups of immediate family allowed, and they’ve really been utilizing our virtual services,” he said.
“It takes a little bit of instruction, and we’ve been walking them through it,” even holding run-throughs to ensure a smooth experience. Other accommodations include conducting viewings in shifts, with only 10 people allowed on the property at a time.
“It’s been difficult for some families. We’re just trying to provide the help they need in a time of grieving,” he said.
In the case of cremations, where the need to secure the deceased in a final resting place is not as urgent, many are choosing to delay memorial services “until everything clears,” Munoz said.
Even though the funeral industry was already trending toward online services, he predicts it will take a while before virtual funerals become commonplace here.
“It’s different in Hawaii. People like that personal touch, they like gathering, and it’s just how it is,” he said. “It’s more of a tradition.”
WHILE many families have opted to postpone services until restrictions are lifted, others like the Browns have tried to make the best of a difficult situation.
Ramona Brown was initially taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center after suffering a fall. Because of COVID-19 precautions, her family was unable to visit her until doctors determined she was near death.
“The doctor finally said ‘come see her’ because they were going to take her off the ventilator,” said son Clement Brown. “She told us before that she was 90 already and didn’t want to be kept alive by machines if something happened.
“The doctor said she had a weak heart, so they expected her to go once they took her off,” he said. “But they took her off and she breathed on her own. She was a worker her whole life, and she had a strong heart.”
Ramona Brown was moved to Hospice Maui Hale, where she remained until her death two weeks later.
“We were there with her,” Clement Brown said. “It was hard to see her go, to see her last breath. But she went peacefully and painlessly.”
In keeping with her wishes, the Browns took the first available date to hold a private viewing April 24 at Ballard-owned Norman’s Mortuary which was immediately followed by a brief graveside service at St. Joseph’s. The church initially prohibited graveside services, but Brown appealed to church leaders, who allowed it provided strict social-distancing protocols were observed.
The viewing was limited to nine family members and the funeral director, with an equally small group for the burial. Nonetheless, some 40 friends and family members lined the parking lot and Makawao Avenue, bordering the graveyard, to watch, each keeping a proper distance from one another. A family member livestreamed the service for those unable to be there.
“It went well, considering,” Brown said. “I could have been better, but we took what we could get.”
Patrick Brown, Clement’s brother, feels blessed his mother lived a long, full life and was physically active until her death. But he is also pained for those for whom the traditional rituals are impossible at this time.
“I feel badly for all those who know the deceased but cannot pay their final respects, which I feel leaves them a void of no closure,” he said.
The family is planning to hold a more inclusive celebration of life for Mona Brown once it is safe to do so.