Last Easter, Sylmar resident Jessica Novela was among the hundreds of people who decorated their loved ones’ gravesites at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery. She took this photo as a keepsake. This year, there isn’t a flower or a decoration to be found. For the first time in its history, the cemetery will remain closed on Easter Sunday because of the coronavirus pandemic.

An elderly couple hoping to place flowers on the grave of their loved one were turned away at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery.  

They had no idea that this cemetery and all other cemeteries throughout Los Angeles County — and across the country — have been shut down because of the coronavirus. 

After being told that they couldn’t go in, they sat in their car looking through the black steel fence that lines the grounds.  

“In all of the years that I have lived here, I have never seen the cemetery grounds without flowers,” the woman said. 

“It looks so bare. This is Holy Week, and it’s usually so full of flowers with families coming and going. This is so sad that we can’t go in.”  

The woman, who opted not to be identified, said she and her husband  had just bought flowers from a man standing on a nearby corner. 

“He’s always there selling to people who are on their way to the cemetery; maybe he doesn’t know  that it’s closed.”   

Leading up to Easter Sunday, the San Fernando Mission Cemetery is usually brimming with families decorating markers for the holiday. But that won’t be happening this year, and there are no exceptions.  

A representative for the cemetery said that they are following strict guidelines that have been directed by Los Angeles county officials to stay closed to the public. Only modest burial services are allowed. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the nation’s largest with 5 million Catholics and for the first time in it’s history, Catholic churches and cemeteries will remain closed this Easter Sunday, as they will be for other faiths.

No funeral masses are being held, and public viewings and large crowds at gravesites are not allowed. 

Only one person is allowed for viewing prior to internment and, following the mandate for social distancing, only 10 people are allowed at the gravesite — including a priest and officiant for the cemetery.  

It’s also recommended those eight friends or family members keep a safe distance from each other and mourners are reminded to refrain from hugs and kisses, making a tough time more difficult when comfort is needed.

“Our community of faith is fully committed to doing all we can to limit the spread of this global public health threat,” said Archbishop of Los Angeles José H. Gomez. “We are taking these extraordinary steps to ensure the safety and well-being of the faithful and the public, as well as all who continue to serve in our parishes and ministries. 

“While our church buildings are temporarily closing during this crisis, our local Church is very much alive and continues to serve and share the Word of God. I encourage all Catholics to continue to pray and join in communion for the celebration of Holy Mass remotely via the internet, television or radio.”

Gomez called on all parishes to ring their church bells at noon and 6 p.m. daily as a sign of “solidarity and hope.” 

Some families who’ve lost loved ones during this challenging time are opting for cremation, or are planning to hold “celebrations of life” events after the stay-at-home directives are lifted and it’s deemed safe to gather again.

Anna Villareal, a funeral director and location manager at the Guerra Gutierrez J.T. Oswald Mortuary on Maclay Avenue in San Fernando said families have been “very understanding” about funeral homes and cemeteries having to limit services. 

“I can’t say I see [any return to normalcy soon]. It’s still very stressful. We have to be very careful how we see families, and we feel bad for them  because not everyone can be allowed here [for the service]. We sympathize with them,” Villareal said.  

“Ten people are allowed — and we have benches where they’re allowed to sit [for social distancing].”

The funeral home is offering “same-day services,” she said.

“The service is really short, maybe 30-40 minutes. Then we go out to the cemetery. Most of the cemeteries are the same, they’re only allowing 10 people at the gravesite.”

Sylmar resident Jessica Novelo has a tradition of going to the San Fernando Mission Cemetery to decorate on every holiday and to visit the gravesites of her boyfriend “Robert” and her grandmother “Matilde.”

“I’m sad that I’m not able to visit him and my grandma. The four-year anniversary [of his death] was on April 2, so I wasn’t able to put flowers on his grave to mark that day either,” Novelo said. 

Easter and Christmas are the times when she usually decorates and leaves something on his grave so that others who visit can leave their messages for him as well. Last year she left eggs and people wrote on them.  

“I know it’s just not me and his mom and family grieving for him. I know it must be hard for everyone else too.”

Novelo said right now she can only wait for the next time she can visit the local cemetery. 

“I’ve been lighting a candle almost every night for my loved ones who’ve passed. I’m hoping they know we are still thinking of them, and love them so much.”