I asked Texans how COVID changed funerals

On Jan. 12, 2021, I was sitting in my parked car, waiting on takeout and watching the funeral of my friend Arun, who had unexpectedly died of COVID-19 only a few days earlier.

I was familiar with the complex rituals surrounding a traditional Hindu funeral through my research on Asian religious traditions. The body was draped in flowers and blessed by a Hindu priest chanting from the ancient Vedic texts that are the foundation of Hindu ritual practice. There were so many things, however, that made this funeral feel amiss, including the use of Q-tips and plastic gloves while anointing the body with turmeric in rituals that had been performed largely without change for centuries. I was constantly reminded that these were not normal times. The digital interface only added to the sense that this was somehow not real, like a scene from a Netflix series or a newsreel of a far-off land.

Arun and I were part of a small group of professors who met every few weeks at the little bar across the street from Texas State University to drink beer and swap stories about teaching students at one of the largest public universities in Texas. Arun’s death hit all of us hard. Another professor of our little social group had been asked to clean out his apartment. She remembered walking in and finding evidence of a life halted in media res — leftovers in the fridge that were still good and half-folded laundry on the dining room table. “He had just done a big run to Costco, Natasha,” she told me, “there were bags and bags of unopened nuts, crackers and dried fruit. Do I eat them? Do I throw them away?”