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Funeral homes go back to normal as the coronavirus pandemic loosens its grip

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At the height of the pandemic, Louis Pillari, the funeral director at Oyster Bay Funeral Home, said he lost several nights of sleep. “It’s not in my nature to have to say ‘I can’t allow you to see your loved one’ or ‘I can’t help you,’ even.”

Pillari said when Covid was at its peak he was extremely busy and just as sad. There were  numerous families that called, he said, and some were from out of the area. “For over 40 years of being around this business, I never had to say the word ‘no,’” he said. 

But things have changed since then and Pillari said that he is grateful to leave the days behind where his funeral home would have to turn people from the outside   area away because there was such a great need from people living in the hamlet. 

“It was a sad time,” Pillari said. “There were some people that asked in the beginning, ‘Well, can I see my loved one?’ and I had to tell them no because we didn’t know enough about the disease and we were afraid a little bit. I didn’t want my employees or myself to get sick.”

“We’ve learned since that we can safely embalm the bodies and then allow people to say goodbye,” he said. “But we aren’t recommending that anyone hug and kiss anyone that passed from Covid. We are erring on the side of caution, obviously.”

Another change, he said, is that it has been over two months since his funeral home has assisted with arrangements for a person who died from Covid-19.

Codge Whitting, the funeral director at Whitting Funeral Home in Glen Head, said that while he had a similar experience, he and his team are moving forward. “In short, we’re kind of back to normal,” Whitting said. “The big issue initially was the number of deaths that were happening just precluded us from having any embalming done. We were very limited in what we could do for services.”

“Probably it was a month and a half of a crazy amount of work and then it kind of settled down and we were able to take time off and get back onto a more normal schedule,” he said, adding that he felt especially sad for the families who, because of the pandemic, could not partake in their religious or non-religious traditions and rituals as they grieved for their loved ones.

Whitting said that he began to notice a decline in Covid-19 related deaths in the middle to the end of May. “We were able to start doing embalming again and what I started doing was leaving things up to the discretion of the families. I have some families that want to keep [the service] completely private . . . there are families that want to just do it by private invite, so they’ll invite families who they want to attend.”

And then some services, Whitting said, are open to the public. “We have the sign up that says practice social distancing,” he said. “I heard that some families were concerned that people weren’t going to [social distance] but I found that over the last several months that people behave well at funerals.”

Funeral homes can only be filled at 33 percent capacity. So, people have to be mindful of how long they spend paying their respects.

At Dodge Thomas Funeral Home, Greg Minutoli, a funeral director, said that services have remained open 100 percent, with precautions such as limited capacity followed.

“If people wanted to have an open casket wake, our funeral home was willing to do that for people,” Minutoli said. “A lot of times, people were ringing our doorbell that weren’t able to see their loved one in the hospital. They had to say goodbye or watch their loved one die on FaceTime.”

“They were very adamant that they wanted to see the person, even though they died of Covid and though everyone was a little scared, ourselves included, we did it.,” Minutoli said. “We made sure they had that opportunity and I think a lot of people were grateful for that.”

Looking back, Minutoli reflected that working as a funeral home director during the pandemic was like nothing he had ever experienced before.

Referring to that time as a sad and traumatic time Minutoli said, “It was incredibly stressful for everyone involved, whether it was a health care worker, families, funeral home staff. It was tough and especially during the first couple of weeks, we kind of just got into the swing of things and really just took what challenges came.”

And like Whitting and Pillari, Minutoli said it’s been a long time since they’ve seen a Covid-19 death.

“Yeah, we are going forward in a very cautious manner,” Pillari said. “We are trying to make things as safe for people as possible, while still allowing them to have closure and grieve