Life goes on during a pandemic. So does death.
Since mummification and pyramids, death has created the need for products and services. Pandemics do not decrease these needs, only how they are delivered. Much changed when N.C. Governor Roy Cooper limited the size of gatherings to 50 and advised social distancing, which denied the bereaved the comfort of hugs and group support.
“It’s amazing to see how quickly things happened,” says Robert Nunnaley, president of Pines Funerals, which encompasses Fry & Picket, Kennedy and Powell funeral homes. “My first thought when hearing the news (of restrictions) was how hurtful — when there isn’t the opportunity for families to grieve together.”
In the past, funerals and related observances like wakes, viewings and shivas have brought relatives and friends together to reminisce and reconnect, cry and laugh, as depicted in films like “Philadelphia,” “About Schmidt” and “The Big Chill.” There was hand shaking, back slapping and lots of hugging. Now, safety of the living while honoring the dead has become the dual objective.
“The restrictions have been a huge change,” says Orbia Simon of Simon Funeral Home in Southern Pines. “It takes a while to get adjusted and accept it.”
Simon has taken steps beyond the 50-person limit. Indoor services are limited to 10 mourners, with no more than 50 at graveside services, an option that Simon and other local funeral directors say is becoming more popular. Their Rockingham counterparts decided collectively to offer only private funerals and graveside services.
As the weeks progress and people become accustomed to the new normal, Simon predicts more cremations with delayed memorial services.
Crowd control becomes an issue. Traditionally, a well-attended funeral meant the deceased had many friends. Acquaintances and co-workers came out of respect. Cousins traveled long distances for the gathering.
“We’ve had to change our policy” to address this, says Jamie Boles of Boles Funeral Home, with three locations in Moore County. “We don’t announce services until after they have taken place.” Obituaries do not list the time and place of graveside services. These omissions allow the family to invite a specified number of guests. For viewings, attendees are asked to come in shifts. However, funeral directors have no control over home-based gatherings.
Boles has not seen an uptick in cremations in the Pinehurst-Southern Pines locations, where 70 percent of clients already opt for this method. The numbers drop dramatically in Lee County (30 percent) and Robeson County (less than 10 percent).
“It’s a cultural thing,” Boles says.
Nunnaley finds families more concerned about drawing a crowd than the funeral directors. “We recommend graveside. We feel being outside is safer,” especially for social distancing. Or, if the family still prefers an unrestricted service, “We offer to hold their loved one and do a service or memorial (at a later date).”
Nunnaley’s rate of cremation is unchanged at 50-50.
Coronavirus affects funeral professionals in other ways. The N.C. Board of Funeral Directors sent a memo on handling remains infected with COVD19 as if infected with other diseases or blood-borne pathogens. This includes wearing masks, shields and protective garments. A message on the board’s website reminds funeral directors to exhibit the same care and compassion helping families plan a funeral while assuring the safety and health of attendees, as well as funeral service professionals.
No surprise that technology plays a part in death observances. Nunnaley may teleconference with families who can select a casket from a PDF document, or they can even video the funeral service and upload to Facebook or a website. Live streaming depends on whether the church is set up for it, Nunnaley says.
“We look for creative ways (to serve the family) through social media — recording, live streaming or helping the family do the recording themselves,” Boles adds. He is encouraged by their understanding and compliance with restrictions, at an already difficult time with, as yet, no end date.
“I talk to the families. Everybody seems to be respecting the rules — and each other.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com