Funeral Homes, Grieving Families Adapt To Restrictions For Public Gatherings

Grieving is a complicated, uncertain time.

After the loss of a loved one, the planning of a funeral is a heavy responsibility. The last thing anyone grieving wants to think about is which 10 relatives most deserve to say goodbye.

With the COVID-19 outbreak changing the way businesses, local government and organizations operate and interact with the public, funeral homes are no exception.

Since Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a State of Public Health Disaster Emergency proclamation March 17 to combat the spread of the coronavirus, effectively closing many businesses and altering the services offered by others, gatherings of more than 10 people at “all locations and venues” have been prohibited. The proclamation included all “social, community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure and sports gatherings.”

“Planned large gatherings and events must be canceled or postponed until after termination of this disaster,” the proclamation read.

In accordance with all of these new state and federal social distancing guidelines, Mills County and southwest Iowa funeral homes have placed limits on the number of people allowed to be present for all funerals, visitations, graveside services and celebration of life gatherings.

“We can do private graveside services, but there can still only be 10 people present,” said Georganne Williams of Peterson Mortuary in Glenwood. “It affects every funeral home whether you’re in a big city or a small town.”

Peterson’s, like the Loess Hills Funeral Home and Cremation Center, which has funeral homes in Glenwood, Malvern and Carson, the Crawford-Marshall Funeral Home in Tabor and Sidney have made adjustments to their services, extending visitations and monitoring traffic flow to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
As a result, some families have elected to put off full funeral services or celebrations of life to later dates in the fall, when family and friends will be more likely to attend.

Scott Erickson at Loess Hills Funeral Home and Cremation Center said the limit on 10 people in facilities for open visitations has been the biggest adjustment.

“It makes it hard on our families,” Erickson said. “If we have someone in our community and the community is grieving and the family is grieving and you’re there for support and not all the family can be present for the open visitation, it’s hard on the family.”

The flip side to putting off memorial services until after the quarantine, Erickson said, is the prospect of prolonging the grief process.

“It’s a double-edged sword because people also want that closure of having the service within a few days of the death,” Erickson said. “That can make it hard on the family, too. When they lose a mom or a dad or a brother and they don’t have a service until six months from now then it’s out of sight and out of mind and now you open up all those emotions again.”

In addition to changing the services themselves, a grieving process, that can often be intimate and emotional, has also been altered.

“It’s hard,” Erickson said. “Being as involved as I have in the community the last nine years, and you get to know these families. I always say when you serve a family, they become a part of my family. And it’s hard - I don’t get to hug a grieving spouse, or a grieving child, or even shake their hand. That’s hard for me. I still want to, but I can’t and you tell them and people understand.”

Craig Marshall, funeral director at the Crawford-Marshall Funeral Homes said the new guidelines have forced some funeral homes to get creative in the services they provide families.

The Iowa Funeral Directors Association and funeral home directors from across the state are sharing ideas and what they’ve tried and what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. The 10-person guideline doesn’t just apply to those in the funeral home, it extends to the entire premises.

Marshall has offered his clients what he calls “drive through visitations” to give visitors who can’t come inside a chance to drive through the funeral home driveway and sign the memorial book.

“The casket is not sitting out open in the parking lot or anything like that,” Marshall said. “But it gives people the chance to offer their condolences.”

While the 10-person limits still apply at graveside services, Crawford-Marshall is working on allowing mourners to accompany the funeral procession to the cemetery but remain in their cars while the services are played on a loudspeaker.

Marshall admits the balancing act of the grief of families and working out the logistics under the new guidelines isn’t easy.

“We did hear from one family that they needed the closure now and they didn’t want to delay it,” Marshall said. “So, we’re trying to find ways to help families to honor their loved one that works for them but still in compliance with the recommended guidelines.”

Livestreaming of memorial services and visitations is one alternative growing in popularity. The visitation or memorial can be streamed over the internet and those who cannot attend can watch online.

While Loess Hills isn’t currently offering online streaming of funeral services, both Peterson and Crawford-Marshall are making the necessary technology arrangements to add that feature for families. Marshall has livestreamed one service on Facebook Live, but they are in the process of setting up a webcast through their website.

The funeral homes’ procedures for handling of the deceased has not changed and is closely monitored by the state health department. But with the COVID-19 outbreak, all three funeral homes that spoke to The Opinion-Tribune said they have added extra safety measures if they do come in contact with an individual who died of the virus.

Like most businesses that remain open during the pandemic, extra attention is being paid to disinfecting surfaces that come in contact with visitors.

Williams, Erickson and Marshall all said hand sanitizer is also available throughout their buildings and each room receives a deep cleaning following every service.

Most families who are making funeral arrangement are already aware that the funeral services they’ve seen in the past aren’t going to happen for the foreseeable future, Marshall said. That awareness has helped ease their concerns.


The Opinion-Tribune

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