By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
The spread of coronavirus has forced citizens to make major adjustments in the way they live. It has also caused major adjustments in the way people say goodbye to friends and loved ones who have passed away.
Restrictions placed on families and businesses have heavily impacted the funeral industry, forcing a drastic change in the way final rites are conducted, and in the way the dead are mourned.
The most glaring alteration is in the number of people who may say their final goodbyes at one time. Under a directive issued by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama Board of Funeral Services, the same rules that apply to other group gatherings also apply to mourners.
“It (the virus) has had a big impact on funerals,” explained Ronnie Brown, General Manager of Johnson-Quimby Funeral Home. “The family comes in, and only 10 people may view the body. After a time, those 10 people rotate out, and 10 more are allowed in. And those 10 people have to maintain the six-foot social distancing rule.”
Brown said the new limitations are a first for the funeral industry. He added that it puts another burden on funeral directors, who already must deal with family members at a dark time in their lives.
“As long as I’ve been at it, I’ve never in my life seen anything like this,” he said. “Usually, things like this don’t trickle down to us. As a funeral director, having to tell somebody that there are rules outside the normal grieving process … I really hate it, but it is what it is.”
Don Jefferson, an employee of Christian Memorial Funeral Home’s Atmore facility, agreed.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “People already can’t visit your loved one in the hospital or nursing home, and now you have rules about how they can pay their last respects. It’s kind of hard to deal with. I understand that saying goodbye is the last thing you can ever do for somebody, so I try to cope with it as best as I can. It’s the same everywhere; it’s a government restriction, so that’s all we can go by.”
One of the most significant changes has occurred in the number of services that are conducted graveside instead of inside a church or funeral home chapel.
“Most people are doing graveside services,” Jefferson said. “You can still have a service in the funeral home, but you can’t have but 10 people in the room at the same time, and they have to be six feet away from each other. If 15 show up, 10 are allowed to go in, then they go out and the others go in.”
Sometimes the funeral director becomes the odd man out.
“If I have to step out to let a family member come in, I step out,” Jefferson said.
Brown said the same rules that apply inside are also in place at the graveside. However, he admitted that there is one aspect of the normal funeral service that can’t be dictated.
“We limit the chairs to 10, and we space them out so that the family’s not sitting right on top of each other,” he said. “Of course, hugging is something you can’t police. It’s hard for me to tell a family not to hug each other. We’re dealing with them in a difficult time, at their roughest level, and we’re supposed to be there to comfort them, not police them. At least it’s outside, so that puts it back on the family, as far as the social distancing.”
Amanda Godwin, whose brother recently passed away in Georgia, said the restrictions in that state are even more rigid than in Alabama.
“Only 10 people were allowed to go (to the graveside service), and they all had to wear masks,” she said. “I had to look all over the place to see if anybody had a mask I could wear, and I was finally able to find one.”
The masks are not yet a requirement under Alabama health and funeral guidelines.
Jefferson said his company hasn’t noticed an increase in the number of families who choose cremation over burial, but Brown said he has noticed such an increase.
“We’ve had three families who opted for cremation due to the healthcare crisis,” he said.
Neither Brown nor Jefferson have yet had to deal with preparing the body of a person who died as a result of the coronavirus, but procedures are in place for such an occasion.
“We have to gown up and wear facemasks,” Brown explained. “Without going into detail, we have been instructed on how to prepare the body of a virus victim, what safety precautions we have to take and what we have to do to treat the disease. There are no real guidelines beyond that. We have stuff that we use to kill the virus. Once we’ve done that, it’s not unsafe for the family.”
Funeral directors’ hands are tied to some degree until after the pandemic has run its course.
“This stuff is nothing to laugh at; it’s serious stuff,” Brown said. “We’re going to get through this, but it’s just going to be different for a while, until the virus curve — whatever that may be — is over. Until then, it’s going to come down to common sense.”
“It’s a no-win situation,” he said. “I can’t answer how soon it might be until this is over, but I hope and pray everyday that it will be soon. It all goes back to the same thing — the family has to do what they’re supposed to do, and we do what we have to do.”