Pandemic alters area funeral services

By David J. Coehrs - [email protected]

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the funeral service industry to alter the way it operates.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the funeral service industry to alter the way it operates.

The local funeral industry hasn’t been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic but, like other essential services, changes in business practices have been inevitable.

A survey of Fulton County funeral homes shows a marked increase in simplified and brief graveside services permitted only for immediate family members of the deceased. Most are punctuated by protective masks and sanitizer, and all are designed for brief goodbyes to prevent the prolonged exposure of those attending.

The funeral directors say the pandemic has caused unfortunate conditions for extended family members and friends of the deceased, who have lost an opportunity for closure.

Todd Grisier of Edgar-Grisier Funeral Homes said all of the state-ordered restrictions related to the coronavirus are in place. No more than 10 people at one time are permitted in the facility’s chapel for a public viewing, and masks and sanitizer are always offered to guests. Edgar-Grisier staff members wear masks at all times, and disinfect the chapel regularly.

And while a traditional funeral service, albeit a restricted one with limited guests, is available, many families are turning to open-casket graveside services. No seating is available graveside, and the funeral tent is without sides that could be touched. Masks and sanitizer are offered.

In the case of graveside services open to the public – the numbers of guests at rural cemetery services in Ohio is open to interpretation – social distancing is practiced and a portable sound system is used to reach the scattered guests.

Grisier said graveside services are not preferred by the staff due to outdoor conditions and the lack of control over lighting. “We’re at the mercy of the weather at these things but we’ve done quite a few,” he said. “We’re highly recommending that (guests are) masked, and we take disinfectant to the grave site.”

Despite the limitations, “we’re trying desperately everything we can to provide the services,” Grisier said.

He noted that graveside services being held at Toledo cemeteries during the pandemic have much stricter regulations. The casket is delivered to the cemetery gates, where cemetery staff transfer it to the grave site, disinfect the outside of the casket, and force family members to view it all from inside their vehicles.

Many of the deceased Edgar-Grisier has handled have been COVID-19 victims, most from Lucas County. Many are cremated, and those that aren’t cannot be viewed inside the facility by family members, since it is thought the coronavirus can remain active in a body for 17 days after death. Grisier said cremation has experienced an uptick, since families are unable to hold the services they prefer.

And while Edgar-Grisier office hours are currently reduced, and face-to-face meetings involve just one or two family members, the funeral home has no intention of closing during the pandemic.

“We’ve never been closed a day in 124 years. We’re still ready to respond,” Grisier said.

In fact, the business has noted an increase in online pre-planning at its website.

Grisier said the funeral home has been impacted financially by the pandemic, since the viewings it normally charges for aren’t being held. But he’s confident the business will be sustained. “There may be changes, but we will survive, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

At Barnes Funeral Chapel in Delta, the number of traditional services and graveside services are basically equal, but changes have occurred. Only 10 people are permitted at a traditional service, which lasts up to 30 minutes. Chairs are kept six feet apart, the chapel is sanitized before and after use, and sanitizer is available throughout the facility. Staff members always wear masks, but personal protective equipment (PPE) is too short in supply to offer to guests.

“We’re not even considered for PPEs. The hospitals and first responders seem to be first,” said Barnes Funeral Director Ray Orben.

Sanitizer is also offered at Barnes’ 10-20 minute graveside services, but there are no chairs or tent curtains.

Caskets are disinfected upon arrival at the funeral chapel. The facility limits the number of family members at both arrangement conferences and the family visitation held an hour before the chosen service.

“The families we service are very much understanding as to what’s going on, but it’s difficult to limit it to 10 people,” Orben said. “We feel unfortunate that family and friends can’t be there.”

Cremation has increased, but Orben hasn’t seen much pre-planning of services for a later date. “I think they’re waiting for that to see how this is going to turn out,” he said.

Orben said these practices are firsts in his 19 years of funeral service but Barnes Funeral Chapel does its best to provide service during the pandemic.

We try to accommodate the families as much as we can and do what they’re requesting,” he said.

The business’s finances have been somewhat affected by coronavirus restrictions, “but I think we’ll survive,” Orben said.

State regulations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the families served by Weigel Funeral Homes in Swanton, Metamora, and Delta. Director Travis Weigel said regular services are held with only 10 guests, with social distancing, and with family viewings of a half-hour to an hour of only 10 people at a time. Masks and sanitizer are always available.

“That’s the sad part. The funeral itself is supposed to be a ceremony, but now things are done differently,” Weigel said. “We value seeing the body, we value the ceremony. The funeral is for the living. And when you don’t have family and friends coming to pay their respects to the grieving family, they don’t have the support they would before the virus took place.”

For that reason, most clients decide on 10- to 15-minute graveside services without chairs or tent flaps. Again, masks and sanitizer are provided.

Still, Weigel said, “It’s hard for extended family and friends. They don’t have the closure of visitation. There is no guest book, no memorial viewing we find are beneficial for people.”

Some families are preparing for public memorial services to be held after social normalcy returns, but the uncertainty of when they’ll take place can add to the family’s anguish. “And then a month or two down the road they have to relive it by having the public service. They have to go through the emotions twice,” Weigel said.

He said staff members remain on the payroll, and are called in when needed. He said Weigel funeral homes are not suffering financially and the business will survive the pandemic.

“But if it’s long-term I can see the funeral industry having a rough road ahead,” he said.

Short Funeral Home Director Randon Short in Archbold said all of the facility’s services have been graveside since the coronavirus restrictions were initiated. Only immediate family members may attend, and services are limited to 15 minutes or less. No masks, sanitizer, tent curtains or chairs are provided.

“Families have been very cooperative,” Short said. “Sometimes, even the family members choose not to be there because they don’t want to be in public.”

Prior visitation is available but limited within a sanitized area. “I encourage that someone in the immediate family stop for viewing for closure and to ensure everything was done properly,” he said.

Social distancing is not often practiced at graveside, “but you don’t see the handshakes or hugs, or any of that,” Short said. “Families have been very, very understanding. They know what to expect, so they have been very, very cooperative.”

Short Funeral Home is also planning future services for the deceased, but Short said he feels sympathy for families burying their dead now. “It’s a rough time, when they need support and the encouragement of friends.”

The business remains financially secure but Short said that can change.”Eventually, yes, it will hurt with less income to meet expenses,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the funeral service industry to alter the way it operates. coronavirus pandemic has caused the funeral service industry to alter the way it operates.

By David J. Coehrs

[email protected]

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.