The funeral home industry touches the lives of every single American, regardless of their race or economic situation. But what happens when that industry cannot operate in its traditional manner because of a worldwide virus pandemic? How can families grieve and honor their loved ones when they are under quarantine, facing stay-at-home orders and practicing social distancing? We talked to Lorin Peri Palmer, owner of Palmer Memorial Chapel, to find out.
According to Palmer, the Coronavirus pandemic has changed everything about the funeral industry. That begins the moment they receive the body of the deceased.
“What we have been doing is following the CDC guidelines,” Palmer said. “There's so much unknown about the virus, so the best that we can do to protect our staff is to employ what we call universal precautions. That means totally covering ourselves, using gloves along with the full uniform that protects the entire body.”
Even though funeral homes are considered an essential service, Palmer says that she had to change the way she interacts with clients.
“Our industry is very much a face-to-face, touchy-feely sort of profession, and this is a major change in terms of how we relate to the families that we serve,” she said. “We're doing some arrangements by telephone. We are not taking walk-ins. We are only allowing staff to go in when we know there is a need. We are coming to the funeral home by appointment only. Even though we are open 24 hours, the telephone determines when we come in. Everyone has been very understanding.”
With the nation under social distancing orders, most people are not having funeral services in churches or at Palmer’s Chapel.
“We're not saying that we would not have them in our chapel. We have space in our chapel to allow the spacing between persons, but we have to limit it to 10 people. So we are doing more live streaming of the services using technology. Some people are using their own telephones to record the service and then placing it on our website for other family members who are not able to come,” Palmer said.
Some families opt to skip the funeral service altogether and simply have a graveside ceremony.
“We have been doing more graveside services, and families are planning a larger celebration later when the Coronavirus has ended and it's safe,” said Palmer. “We are limiting it to about 10 people at the gravesite. Some people remain in their cars. It's not the funeral home, it's the cemetery giving the guidelines. Funeral homes are not able to police people, so our main objective is to make sure that the families that we serve are allowed to experience things as close as possible to the grave site. Others are asked to remain back from the grave site. They can either be in their cars or they can stand outside, but they must keep a distance from the immediate family and the area.”
Because of the higher number of graveside services, fewer people are renting limos to transport family members.
“Many families are driving their own cars to the cemetery,” Palmer said. “If we are asked to drive a family, we make sure we have our masks and gloves on, and if we need to crack the windows for the limousines we can do that. But most families are now driving themselves to the cemetery.”
That’s not the only change.
“We find that families do not want people to come by their residences or their homes,” Palmer added. “They would rather use the funeral home as a place for receiving friends, or to have the register where people come to pay their respects. Families are preferring to do that at the funeral home rather than at their residence and are not encouraging people to bring food. Things that normally occur during the bereavement process has changed quite a bit.”
Another thing that has changed is that because of the economic disruption caused by the Coronavirus, many people have been laid off or no longer have jobs.
“We are sensitive to the fact that many people are unemployed and they don't have jobs to go back to because of this Coronavirus,” Palmer says. “We have to show compassion as members of this profession, and we have to do what we can.”
“We don't want families to feel that they're going to be treated differently because of the Coronavirus,” she continued. “We are working extra hard, and we are not turning anyone away. We will not discriminate against Coronavirus families. We try to put ourselves in the place of others. We treat everyone as if it's our family member who has died. We want them to tell us what they feel comfortable with and what their desires are, and we do our best to make that happen.”
Palmer went on to say that if you have recently lost a loved one, local funeral directors are here to help.
“I would still advise anyone to do what they normally do when contact their funeral home of choice. Most funeral homes are going to work with that family to the very best of their ability. Understand that universal precautions must be taken, but we want to keep the dignity of the loved one. That is paramount,” she said.