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Funeral homes watch families grieve alone

Pandemic changes ways families grieve

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Everything seems to be different during the coronavirus pandemic, including funerals and burials. Business has increased dramatically, local funeral directors acknowledge, because of Covid-19.

Louis Pillari, the owner and director of the Oyster Bay Funeral Home, said that over the past week, he had seen a spike in deaths of close to 50 percent. Codge Whitting, a co-owner and the director of Whitting Funeral Home, in Glen Head, said that he, too, had seen a noticeable increase.

“The whole industry has been swamped,” Whitting said. “In the last week and a half, I’ve done 20 funerals. I usually do three or four a week.”

Given the dictates of social distancing, there are no longer traditional viewing hours at funeral homes, regardless of whether Covid-19 is the cause of death. And members of the clergy, for the most part, are not leading prayers or offering words of comfort to grieving families at the facilities.

Funeral Masses are not permitted inside churches. Some clergy are offering prayers at burial sites, but that is not allowed at some cemeteries. And not even family members are permitted to attend burials at national cemeteries, like Calverton and the Long Island National Cemetery, which allow only a funeral director to be present.

All of this is taking an emotional toll not only on families, but also on those working in the death care industry.

“It’s heartbreaking to be the only one there for a burial at a national cemetery,” said Karen DeVine, the owner and director of Oyster Bay’s DeVine Funeral Home. “For me, the biggest challenge is watching families not be able to grieve properly. They’re grieving alone.”

Keeping death care workers safe

After receiving authorization from the family of someone who has died, a funeral home sends a van to the residence, hospital or nursing home to pick up the body. Staff members now wear personal protective equipment, said Pillari.

“We treat [the deceased] as if they all have the coronavirus,” he said. “Our first concern is safety.”

Whitting said he also assumes that Covid-19 is the cause. Although death certificates list the cause of death, Whitting and Pillari said they are erring on the side of caution, assuming that others may have also had the virus.

Whitting’s facility does not do its own embalming. It sends bodies to other funeral homes for the procedure, but now that isn’t possible because of the surge in deaths from the virus.

To ensure the safety of his staff, Whitting explained, the nose and mouth of the deceased are sprayed with a disinfectant. “Then we put them in two body bags and then into a casket, if that is the family’s wish,” he said. If the deceased is to be cremated, the body is either put into a casket, if the family has planned a viewing [at the funeral home], or into a cremation container.”

Whitting added that his funeral home is not allowing open caskets during the pandemic. “I feel badly for those who want to see the person,” he said. “In some cases, the person died alone in the hospital, and now they can’t see them, either, but I can’t have an open casket until we can start embalming again.”

He has found that the wait for most burials is generally two to three days, because of the necessary paperwork. “After two to three days of refrigeration,” Whitting said, “the coronavirus is gone.”

Communicating preferences 

In the past, family members planning a loved one’s funeral met with a staff member at a funeral home to choose a casket and make the arrangements. Since the outbreak began, DeVine said, she lets the family decide whether they want to come in. If they do, she meets them wearing an N95 mask and gloves, and after the family leaves, everything is sanitized.

“We use separate pens, too,” DeVine said, adding that many people continue to prefer a face-to-face meeting. “But some people are now making the arrangements by phone.”

Others, Whitting said, use the videoconferencing platform Zoom.

Clients are not required to wear masks and gloves at his facility, Pillari said, but he does, and he has signs posted that encourage members of the public to do so as well. “We are erring on the side of safety,” he said. “We are trying to stop the spread.” 

Before Covid-19, funeral homes offered viewing hours on one or two days, up to four hours a day, to allow families and friends to have a sense of closure. Now the hours are “abbreviated,” Pillari said.

“We can have gatherings of only 10 or less, and that includes me,” he said. “So we offer a two-hour time frame, but only the immediate family can come. And we are constantly cleansing and sanitizing.”

Devine follows the same protocol, with viewing limited to an hour or an hour and a half before burial. “Some immediate families are more than 10 people,” DeVine said. “So, the [different] families come in individually.”

Many people who bury or cremate their loved ones are planning a future life celebration at the funeral home, all of the funeral directors said.

Cemeteries 

Like orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cemetery regulations change frequently, DeVine said.

Overwhelmed cemeteries and crematories are sometimes limiting availability, with a waiting period that can be as long as 10 days to two weeks, something Pillari said he had never experienced. Thus far, he has had enough space at the Oyster Bay Funeral Home to store remains until they are interred, he said.

Another change is the absence of flowers at the cemetery. Most florists are closed, Whitting said. And some cemeteries, he added, are concerned that flowers may carry the virus, which could be passed on to cemetery employees who handle them.

“I’ve been around the business since I was 14 years old,” Pillari said. “This is worse than anything I’ve ever seen, including Sept. 11.”