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Funerals in the time of coronavirus: How a pandemic is changing the industry

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On Tuesday morning, a mourning family took their places among the pews at their church in North Augusta, S.C., to say their final goodbyes to a loved one. As the priest began his Requiem Mass, he may have noticed his words echoed a bit more than usual. That’s because the church, with a capacity of 500, held only 15 people, each sitting at least six feet apart. 

In Baltimore, Sol Levinson & Bros funeral home ended all chapel memorials and will only offer graveside services. They won’t pick families up in limousines, and private goodbyes the night before a burial have been outlawed. Mourners must now use their hands to throw dirt on top of the coffin, a Jewish tradition usually carried out with a shovel. Prayers are read off smartphones, instead of from communal books, and yarmulkes are no longer available to borrow, so bare heads abound. Hugging and handshaking are discouraged. 

NorthStar Memorial Group, which operates more than 75 funeral, cremation, and cemetery locations around the country, is offering families who can’t attend services in person the ability to plan and view the event remotely. The funeral takes place in an empty room with an entirely virtual audience. 

NorthStar is also offering to “hold loved ones for an extended amount of time,” until coronavirus fears have died down and a proper funeral service can take place. 

“It’s no problem to hold a loved one for several weeks, with embalming and preparations done the correct way, it shouldn’t be an issue,” says John Renfro, the group’s chief operating officer. But, he adds, “If we get to months, we’ll have to evaluate what options we have.”

In a country sitting under the unnerving thumb of coronavirus, only two things can be certain: death and taxes. Except the IRS recently issued a 90-day respite from tax deadlines, so that leaves just the one thing. 

In many states, funeral directors are a legal necessity. Only licensed and registered funeral directors can make arrangements for the moving, burial, cremation, and care of a deceased relative. There’s no respite for the nearly 20,000 funeral homes in the U.S., which bring in about $17 billion in revenue each year.  

“We see ourselves as an extension of healthcare,” says Renfro. “We must continue to go out when we’re called and we must continue to provide essential services when they’re needed. We don’t have the ability to close like bars and restaurants can, we’re essential.” There is no option B, he explains. “When death occurs and you need to call someone, we need to be there.”

Matt Levinson, who runs Sol Levinson & Bros, agrees. “We can’t close, we’re not a type of business that can ever close. When someone passes away, we need to be available to help the family in every way we can,” he says. And while he hasn’t seen revenue falter yet, he worries about what will happen if a critical number of his staff of 50 become ill. He’s been asking employees to rotate out in weeklong shifts to minimize exposure. 

“It’s very challenging to us, we’re trying to keep our staff healthy and safe, trying to keep the families that we serve safe and the community at large, and we want to make sure that we’re available to continue to serve these families, even if it gets worse,” he says. “We’re not the type of business that can close our doors for two months and tell employees to go home.”

The National Funeral Directors Association speaks with the Center for Disease Control each day and then issues guidelines on appropriate funeral practices to its members, says Walker Posey, spokesperson for the NFDA and owner of Posey Funeral Directors in South Carolina. At the request of the association, the CDC issued official guidelines on its website, including special instructions for how to prepare bodies of those who have passed away from the virus. “People should consider not touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19,” the site reads. 

Levinson says that his funeral directors meet at least once a day to discuss new developments and how to best educate both their staff and family members of the deceased. 

“Look, we don’t have a crystal ball and we’re not sure what’s going to happen next,” says Renfro, but his team is in constant communication about updated guidelines, and updates their contingency plans each evening he says. 

“Families are upset, they’re grieving and they can’t have the proper funeral that they want or need,” says Levinson. “They want to be surrounded by their community. I feel horrible for the families right now, they’re going through the toughest time in their life and they can’t have the closure that they need.” 

Many funeral homes are offering small burial services now with the option to hold a larger, public memorial service in a few months when the immediate urgency of social distancing has subsided, but Levinson is doubtful that many families will opt to delay their mourning. 

“So far it seems like people just want to have the service now, we’ve had some families mention they’re going to consider it in the future,” he says. “Time will tell, I don’t know if people are going to want to revisit this months from now.” 

Still, Posey sees a silver lining for his industry which is often slow to adapt to new technology.

“This will show the importance of online arranging, it will expose the need our industry has to improve its tech and to connect with people where they feel comfortable,” he says, adding that most funeral homes currently have a way to livestream services online, but there’s more that needs to be done. “This exposes a greater need to be able to share and provide information and education in a way other than face to face.”

Posey hopes that the emphasis on holding a virtual gathering outlasts the impact of coronavirus.  

Michael Schimmel, the CEO of Sympathy Brands which owns, and, says he’s seen a significant increase in inquiries since fears of the virus began. On an average day, he says his company would field about 80 inquiries a day. That has increased to nearly 350 over the past week. 

“Uncertainty,” says Schimmel, “is a new normal.” People still want to attend funerals or express their condolences but there’s now a massive influx of “fear or uncertainty as it relates to should and how people get buried and how to provide support for grieving families.”  

Web streaming comes into play, he says, but there’s still a human element in expressing condolences. “People still want to provide and help people through the mourning process, if you simply go to live streaming exclusively, people’s wishes may not be met.” 

Schimmel hopes to find ways to meet wishes without exposing at-risk populations. He’s working to provide information on his websites about how to plan, coordinate, and express condolences online. “There are a lot of questions about how to express those condolences, and if people should attend—or what to do in lieu of sending food or flowers,” he says.

“We’ve got to realize that this isn’t going away,” Schimmel says. And we need to figure out how communities can still coalesce around those in mourning with an “evolved definition of what a gathering means and looks like.”

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