Mar 17, 2020
On Monday morning, more than two thousand funeral professionals across the nation tuned in on Facebook to hear the NFDA’s live webinar, A Conversation With the CDC: Funeral Service and COVID-19. The webinar was moderated by NFDA Public Relations Director, Jessica Koth, and featured Capt Jill Shugart, Dr. Sarah Reagan-Steinerand Dr. David Berendesof the Center for the Disease Control (CDC). The webinar addressed many questions and concerns funeral professionals have related to how the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, known as COVID-19, impacts the work of funeral professionals.
In addition to preparing our own office, ASD has been closely following all of the latest developments surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19, particularly in relation to how it affects the funeral service community. In order to support our clients, we need to understand the challenges they are facing. These challenges have been evolving on a daily basis, with the most recent development being the CDC’s recommendation to refrain from holding any gathering with more than 10 people for the next eight weeks. In addition to monitoring the CDC guidelines, ASD has also been listening to funeral directors who have been opening up about their own experiences since the early days of this outbreak.
Below we break down some of the major ways this coronavirus is impacting funeral homes and let funeral directors explain, in their own words, what life is like on the front lines of this pandemic.
1. Removal, Transportation and Prep Room Precautions When Handling a COVID-19 Death
During Monday’s NFDA webinar, the CDC representatives reviewed biosafety and infection control practices. When it comes to transporting, handling and embalming the body of a person who died of COVID-19, they advised funeral home workers to follow their routine infection prevention and control precautions. Personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used at all times (disposable gowns, respirators, masks, gloves, goggles, face shields etc.)
“Nursing homes will likely start protocols for us, but at least wear a mask and gloves just in case when you enter for a removal for the sake of those you come in contact with at the home,” stated Caleb Wilde of Wilde Funeral Home in Parkesburg, PA.
Embalming educator, Monica Torres aka Cold Hands Hosts outlines the official recommendations from the CDC for COVID-19 PPE 101
The CDC offers these recommendations for handling the transportation of a person who has died of COVID-19: If it is necessary to transfer a body to a bag, follow Standard Precautions, including additional personal protective equipment (PPE) if splashing of fluids is expected. For transporting a body after it has already been bagged, clean the outside of the bag with an EPA-approved disinfectant. Based on available data, these cleaners are designed for use on harder to kill viruses and are therefore more effective. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfecting products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time, etc.). Wear disposable nitrile gloves when handling the body bag.
COVID-19 is a real concern for embalmers. Embalmer precautions are important in every case because of this coronavirus. In this video, Matt Smith of Professional Embalmers offers helpful information on how to safely embalm a body with coronavirus (COVID-19).
Michigan Freelance Funeral Director, Kari Northey, also reiterated that funeral directors must be careful to follow these measures when responding to COVID-19 cases: “Use the precautions that we know to use with every deceased we are caring for. Respirators, full PPEs, masks, goggles, gowns, gloves,” Kari stated. “[It’s important that we are] using that throughout the whole process: removal, transferring, embalming, everything we’re doing, using the full extent of PPE.”
2. Holding Funeral Services for a Person who has Died from COVID-19
As the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 continues to rise, funeral homes are likely to eventually be called on to assist a family who lost a loved one to this disease. It is important to remember that, according to the CDC, there is no known risk to being in the same room as the body of someone who died from COVID-19. During the NFDA webinar, CDC representatives explained COVID-19 is a new virus and they are still learning how it spreads.
They believe the virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets from a person who is currently sick. These droplets can land near the mouth or noses of a nearby person and be inhaled in the lungs. This type of spread is not as big of a concern after death. However, it may be possible for a person to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object with the droplets and then touching their face. This is not thought to be the main route of transmission.
The CDC recommends that funeral guests should refrain from or limit touching the bodies of people who died from COVID-19. Kissing, washing and shrouding should be avoided before, during and after the body has been prepared, if possible. For important religious or cultural practices, families are encouraged to work with their religious or community leader to make adjustments to reduce their exposure as much as possible.At a minimum, people who perform these rituals should wear gloves.
“The CDC has stated that having the funeral should be safe. Being in the same room as someone who has died from the disease should be safe. But, no one ever wants to say 100% that it’s going to be okay just in that one instance that someone might get sick,” says Northerly. “The CDC at this point is saying yes, it is safe. You may choose to have a viewing or a burial. You can still embalm. They do recommend that maybe you don’t touch your loved one at the funeral home when you go in or touch someone else’s loved one if you are attending a visitation.”
While these are the guidelines currently in place by the CDC, funeral professionals are encouraged to check for any state or local requirements that may dictate the handling of remains of individuals who die from infectious diseases. For instance, in Nevada the state health departments are now recommending that all bodies be cremated. There are also some states that are considering banning all funeral services for the time being. This is an evolving situation, so it is likely that new local restrictions will be enacted that will impact funeral homes in different ways.
Funeral Director Corey Gaffney of Gaffney Funeral Home in Tacoma, WA speaks with Ryan Thogmartin of ConnectingDirectors.com about how handling funerals for COVID-19 victims and how the outbreak has impacted his funeral home.
3. Gathering Restrictions Impacting Funeral Services
On Sunday afternoon, the CDC announced that, for the next eight weeks, social gatherings should be limited to 50 people or less. This announcement had an immediate impact on funeral service professionals as a funeral visitation line very often has more than 50 people. Then, less than 24 hours later, the CDC announced a tighter restriction stating public gatherings should now be limited to 10 people or fewer. Since that time, there has been speculation in some states that banning funeral services all together may be the best option.
Right now, funeral directors all over the country are helping families to make extremely difficult decisions related to their loved one’s funerals. While some families are choosing to hold smaller, family-only ceremonies, others are opting to postpone their loved one’s funeral until the risk of exposure has decreased. Some are also exploring live streaming options so that people can attend the funeral virtually. These conversations, we imagine, have become even more difficult as funeral directors have had to scramble to change plans in response to the CDC’s tighter restriction of keeping gatherings to under 10 people.
“Funeral directors are faced with a lot of scary situations right now. First of all, they’re on the front lines. So, they have to take care of themselves. And then now they have to ask families to try and limit those who can say a formal goodbye, to  people. So, each funeral home is implementing that in their own way,” said Suzanne Gebel, Executive Director of Iowa Funeral Directors Association.
To help ease this burden, many funeral homes are now looking into live streaming options so funeral services can still be attended from a safe distance. This option ensures family members can hold services without delay and without denying friends and family the opportunity to say goodbye. Most importantly, it allows families to still feel connected to everyone who cared about their loved one and to feel supported.
“The gathering is really the important part about the funeral ceremony, because you feel the support of your community around you. Whether it’s large or small, families need to feel supported by their communities,” says Funeral Director, Walker Posey of Posey Funeral Directors in North Augusta, SC. “I hope that folks know that although there’s a lot of fear around public spaces and gatherings, there are ways to still make those gatherings meaningful. Funeral homes across America will not stop serving families just because of this virus.”
According to Dr. David Berendes of the CDC, funeral home staff should limit the number of people at funerals by offer live streaming services and staggering service times. In an effort to keep funeral guests safe, the CDC recommends that funeral home staff limit interactions and physical contact with the body, promote hand hygiene, encourage social distancing and to remain vigilant of the number of people coming in and out of the funeral home. Any high-touch surfaces should be cleaned daily. For families that request items placed in a casket to be returned to them, funeral homes should clean and disinfect all materials before giving them back.
Funeral director, Kari Northey, shared that many families decided to postpone their loved one’s services even before the CDC’s official recommendations were released. “Families are starting to delay visitations and memorial services and gatherings or changing them to be just private family to alleviate their exposure to the public and the public gathering in a large area,” Kari explained several days before the official CDC recommendation. “It doesn’t mean the person who died had the disease, but just the exposure to a lot of other people in case someone in that room might have the disease.”
Funeral Director Caleb Wilde believes postponing funerals, for now, is the best option. “Please consider postponing funerals,” Wilde stated. “Funerals are generally for the elderly and attended by the elderly. Don’t make them have to choose between their own safety and paying their respects.”
Other funeral directors discourage the act of delaying funerals, believing that such a choice may exacerbate a family’s grief. “The important thing is to have the closure. Now, people might say we are going to wait eight to twelve weeks to have their funeral,” said funeral director, Roman Ryan of Ryan Funeral Home in Madison, WI. “I personally don’t recommend that because that’s a long gap in between starting the mourning process.”
4. Growing Number of Concerns over PPE Equipment
During the NFDA webinar, many funeral professionals expressed fear over the availability of PPE equipment for their funeral home staff. Many have concerns about where funeral directors fall on the list for priority distribution. The CDC acknowledged there was a disruption in the supply of PPE and facilities may experience temporary shortages.
If a funeral home is concerned about a shortage of PPE, CDC recommends alerting the state health department and local healthcare coalition as they are best positioned to help with temporary shortages. Perhaps the biggest concern is the availability of respirators. The CDC representatives provided information about possible alternatives to N95 respirators which can be reviewed by clicking the links below.
5. Staff Shortages Due to Employee Illness
“We don’t have the luxury of working from home. Our jobs…we need to be here,” said Kevin Desmond of AJ Desmond & Sons Funeral Home in Troy, MI.
Since this coronavirus first began spreading its deadly tentacles across the world, a multitude of headlines have been published about how death care workers in other countries, such as China and Italy, struggled to respond to the pandemic. Stories about Chinese funeral staff working 24 hours a day and Italian funeral workers unable to removal bodies from homes have circulated the news for weeks now.
We’ve learned from news officials that there is potential for the United States to follow similar trajectories as these other countries. Therefore, many funeral home workers should brace for the peak of this pandemic which could bring about staff shortages. Like health care workers, funeral home employees cannot do their jobs entirely from home. Instead, they are in the very tough position of interacting with others and must take every precaution to limit exposure to the virus.
“To death care workers: we regularly come in contact with those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. IF YOU ARE SICK AND YOU SUSPECT YOU HAVE THE CORONAVIRUS, QUARANTINE YOURSELF. I know it’s busy at work, but the most unselfish thing you can do is stay home,” says Funeral Director, Caleb Wilde.
Still, concerns are growing that the death care workforce in America may be stretched too thin as time goes on. The challenges in the days ahead for funeral directors are likely to multiple if staff shortages become the norm and many funeral home employees contract the virus. For the time being, funeral homes have been able to respond promptly when they are called upon, but as the number of deaths continues to rise and employee sickness becomes more of a concern, funeral directors in America may be facing the same difficult decisions and challenges we’ve seen other countries combat.
6. Compounded Grief of Families
One of the most tragic fallouts of this coronavirus outbreak is the impact this pandemic has had on grieving family members. For families that have lost a loved one to the virus, it is hard to even fathom the heartbreak and helplessness they have endured. In most cases, family members were unable to spend time with their loved ones before their deaths due to quarantine restrictions. It’s difficult to imagine not only losing a loved one, but realizing the person you loved was alone at the time of their death is emotionally crippling. This is truly grief on another level.
For families who have recently lost a loved one, whether it be from COVID-19 or another cause, the ability to find comfort through the support of others has now been taken away. Denying families the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one in the manner they choose is one of the cruelest after-effects of this virus. It is difficult to even measure how much this situation will complicate the grief experienced by families in the years to come.
In a recent article, Funeral Director, Anderson Yates of Fern Creek Funeral Home in Louisville, KY, shared how the public gathering restrictions are impacting their families: “When we were talking about it, the young lady was like, ‘You know, I could run off and get married and have a wedding later, but my dad wanted a funeral and he had a lot of friends.’ They’re planning a celebration later in the year, but they’re very sad that they’re not able to do that. Funerals — you only get to do ‘em once.”
In addition to facing an incalculable number of logistical challenges, funeral professionals are also struggling to provide the support and compassion these bereaved families need. In some cases, directors are forced to make arrangements with relatives solely over the phone or through online channels. This is not ideal in anyway, but funeral directors have no choice and are being forced to limit their contact with families despite their desire to provide emotional support. There is no doubt that relatives will have a rough road ahead in mourning their lost loved ones. In the weeks and months that follow, funeral professionals will be instrumental in helping these families face their compounded grief.
7. Increased Number of Inquiries from the Public
With all of the extra tasks and precautions funeral professionals are handling right now, an increased number of phone calls and emails from the public only adds to the load. Between inquiries about cancelled or rescheduled funerals, questions about accessing live streamed funerals and newspapers calling to request interviews, funeral home phone lines have never been busier. There are also many seniors who are isolated at home, reaching out to anyone they can for support.
“We are having more phone calls asking whether we’ve canceled anything for the rest of the week, services and stuff,” said Amy Norris, President of the Schoppenhorst, Underwood, & Brooks Funeral Home in Shepherdsville, KY.
ASD’s tracks the number of incoming calls answered for funeral homes. When comparing our latest call statistics with our data from before the pandemic hit, we found that funeral homes are receiving 6% more phone calls currently. Our answering service is committed to providing reliable call support to funeral homes across America so that funeral homes have one less thing to worry about during this chaotic time. With more than 90 percent of our Call Specialist staff equipped with a home computer, our answering service is operating at full capacity and is here to support you when you need us most.
ASD is the only funeral home exclusive answering service in operation. Right now, this makes a very big difference because many other answering services also work with healthcare organizations and have proved to be less capable of providing prompt and consistent service to funeral homes. If your funeral home is working with an answering service that is not prioritizing your funeral home’s calls, we encourage you to contact our Sales Team so we can provide your funeral home with the call support it needs during this pandemic. We offer trial period, so you can use our answering service risk free for 30-days absolutely free. To learn more, contact us at 800-868-9950 or email Sales@myASD.com.
How has your funeral home been impacted by COVID-19? We want to hear your story about how you and your staff have adapted to serve the needs of families. Please share in the comments below.
About The Author
Jess Farren (Fowler)
Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD’s company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com