Grieving the loss of a family member or loved one is hard in the best of circumstances, but for those suffering the loss amid the Coronavirus pandemic, the grief is compounded.
Federal, state and local officials have put restrictions in place that limit gatherings to 10 people or less, with no exceptions for funeral homes.
Local funeral homes say they are trying to make the best of a bad situation by delaying memorial services until after the pandemic, hosting drive-in funerals, streaming services online or through radio signals, and offering graveside services that allow for higher attendance without violating the social-distancing restriction.
“It’s rough enough on a family to have to go through a death, but then to also have to go through this, to where they aren’t able to share the time with extended family and friends,” said West Smith of Pace-Stancil Funeral Home in Cleveland. “We’ve had a couple of families who have memorial services scheduled in the future. The problem with postponement is we do not know how long this is going to go on.”
Embalmed bodies can be held for just a few weeks before it becomes an issue, Smith added.
At Faith and Family Funeral Services, Inc., in Batson, funeral director and owner Jerry Sonnier has seen an increase in the requests for memorial services.
“You can still have singing and an open casket viewing at a graveside funeral. The families pretty much know the guidelines when they come in,” Sonnier said. “At the funeral home, we can control the number of people in the building but at the cemetery other people will show up. We just ask them to either stay in their cars to watch the service or space themselves out six feet.”
According to Sonnier, he welcomes family members to shoot video on their cell phones and post to Facebook.
“We are able to help them with this, but everyone these days has a cell phone and some audio app. They aren’t leaving it for us to do,” he said. “It’s their grief. We are just facilitators. We listen to them. Whatever they want, we try to bring to them.”
Brian Neal, owner of Neal Funeral Home in Cleveland, is using technology and features of his funeral home to accommodate mourning families. He believes he can safely accommodate up to 50 people by sequestering groups of 10 people in five different rooms. The audio of a funeral service is then streamed to all five rooms and mourners can use their phones to watch a live-stream of the service on Facebook.
“We can also have a drive-through funeral service where the casket can be placed in our porte-cochère. We’ve also held drive-up funeral services like the ones held by churches. The casket is laid out and all the flowers are there. They are able to witness the service from their vehicle. If they get out of their vehicle, they have to maintain a six-foot distance. They can walk up to the casket and pay their respects, and then return to their vehicle,” Neal said. “We have adapted and improvised to come up with options for our families rather than tell people there is nothing we can do. It’s as safe as it can be at this time. We have found ways that comply with CDC recommendations with what they are allowing in the local community.”
Neal Funeral Home is broadcasting its services over an FM transmitter that the mourners can pick up by turning the dial on their car radios to 88.9 FM.
Kim Mulkey, managing partner and director of Sterling Funeral Home in Dayton, also has embraced technology and is having clients sign documents virtually from the safety of their homes instead of traditional face-to-face meetings.
“We bought a Go Pro camera and are using it to record graveside services for the families,” she said. “We also have the ability to live-stream services from our chapel.”
The families can opt to share the links for the live-stream services with friends and family members who are unable to attend the service.
They all say that turnout at funerals has been impacted by the pandemic. Services that typically would see hundreds of mourners may be attended by only a handful of family members and friends.
“We’ve had services that, if not for these restrictions, would have been attended by 250 people. It just breaks my heart for people,” Smith said. “Families seem to understand that we are all in this together. They also understand that they don’t want their own family folks who are ill or older to be exposed to anything.”
Of the four funeral homes, only Neal Funeral Home has handled a COVID-19 victim, and the person was from outside Liberty County. With the Jefferson County morgue reportedly not accepting inquests of possible COVID-19 cases, including those who have had a family member test positive, the funeral homes are handling all bodies with the presumption that they are infectious.
“We already use extra precaution in caring for someone’s loved one. People are not always forthcoming when they know their family member had an illness like MERSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) or HIV, so we have to treat everyone with universal precautions,” said Mulkey. “It just requires additional steps to make sure that everyone on our staff is safe from contracting an infectious disease and passing it on. It’s a best practice anyway.”