Grieving safely in a pandemic

Funerals, viewings no longer ‘traditional’

By Kathy Fox - [email protected]

Vernon Funeral Home directors (from left to right) Dave, Colin and Tammy Vernon display some of the Personal Protective Equipment generally used while embalming a body.

Christopher Selmek | Urbana Daily Citizen

A procession of approximately 50 vehicles recently traveled from the Middleburg United Methodist Church to a nearby cemetery. About 15 members of a family exited vehicles for a private graveside service. When it ended, drivers slowly drove by the family to offer condolences.

“Some people barely rolled down their windows,” recalled Tammy Vernon, who with husband Dave Vernon own and are funeral directors of Vernon Funeral Home in Urbana, Skillman-McDonald and Vernon Funeral Home in Mechanicsburg and Freshwater-McDonald-Vernon Funeral Home in North Lewisburg.

Dave Vernon said few families need to be told why funeral homes are discouraging large gatherings and practicing social distancing during this COVID-19 pandemic that, at the time this article was written, had sickened at least five and led to the death of one in Champaign County.

“They’re as conscious of what’s going on as we are,” he said.

“Everybody has been great at social distancing,” said Roxanne Shively, funeral director and co-owner of Atkins-Shively Funeral Home in St. Paris and Suber-Shively Funeral Home in Fletcher. “Nobody wants to expose anybody.”

As noted in a news release from Frank Lewis, owner and funeral director of Walter & Lewis Funeral Home in Urbana, funeral homes are adapting to changing guidelines issued by governments, public health officials and funeral director associations. Guidelines are under constant review and some practices have changed since a March 20 Daily Citizen article.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Shively said of adjustments funeral homes have had to make. She said some families say they will wait until later to have services or gatherings.

She added that the family of a COVID-19 victim chose to have an immediate burial, but could decide to have a service at a later date.

She said a recent graveside service was attended by 50 people practicing social distancing, except for a few family clusters. The funeral home didn’t set out chairs in order to encourage social distancing.

Shively said that rather than holding indoor visitations or services at this time, Shively funeral homes are offering graveside services for family members, as well as indoor viewings for family only, with up to 10 relatives in the funeral home at a time so people can be 6 feet apart in the limited space. The wearing of masks is recommended.

Register books are given to families who may have services later. Shively said more than the usual number of people are offering condolences to families on the funeral home website.

As of next week, families will be able to choose caskets online, she said, adding that current circumstances have pushed the business to join other funeral homes in offering this service.

Rotating funeral attendees

The Vernon funeral homes continue to provide viewings, visitations and indoor services, as well as graveside services, but people are counted at the door and no more than 50 may be inside at a time and only family members may attend indoor services.

This was true even for an “immediate family” of 130 who attended an indoor service. The Vernons said holding two services was considered, but it was decided that would be difficult for the family. So, many family members were rotated and saw only part of the service.

Also to reduce the risk of contagion, visitors are not signing register books. Instead, from a proper distance, they announce their names and a staffer adds them to the book.

“We’re livestreaming all funerals now,” Dave Vernon said. “It has worked really well for the circumstances … It’s been nice for people who don’t want to leave their homes and nice for families to know that people are going to watch.”

While all local funeral directors say they are encouraging social distancing, Lewis said X’s have been placed on the floor at the Walter & Lewis Funeral Home to “illustrate safe social distancing.” He added that visitors are not writing in register books, although their names are taken, that only a certain number of visitors are allowed inside at one time, and that services are livestreamed and video-recorded.

“We recognize our responsibility to protect the health of those we are privileged to serve,” Lewis states in a news release. “We will continue to guide families, as we always have, in ways they can meaningfully commemorate the life of the loved one, while adhering to the guidance issued by the federal, state and local public health officials.”

“The worst part is that we feel like we’re here to serve our communities and we’re used to doing it a traditional way,” Shively said. “People come here looking for a traditional public funeral. It’s very disheartening for us as funeral directors. It feels like we’re disappointing people. People need to grieve and need to be around their family and friends, and we can’t provide that right now.”

“We’re going to try to do everything we can to help families,” Tammy Vernon said.

Tammy’s brother, Rob Cisco, is a funeral director in St. Marys and Celina. He made the following observation: “Losing some aspects of funeral service because of the virus has made our community rethink what the true value of a celebration of life does for us. This is just one example of many on what we will look forward to getting back again in the near future.”

Embalmers, transporters face risks

By Kathy Fox

While funeral directors take steps to keep visitors and staff safe by constantly cleaning facilities and encouraging visitors to use wipes and social distancing, they are concerned about their own welfare and the welfare of others who transport and embalm the bodies of people who died of COVID-19.

Roxanne Shively, funeral director at two Shively funeral homes, said if a family wants a body embalmed, it will happen. But, she is concerned about the health of embalmers.

Dave Vernon, funeral director at three Vernon funeral homes, said there is no contagion from an embalmed body, so no danger to those attending viewings, but that the National Funeral Directors Association has said that until embalming occurs, the risk of contagion from a person who has died of COVID-19 equals the risk from a live person diagnosed with the disease.

“When we get a call, we ask for the person’s name and (now) ask if this is an infectious case,” Vernon said. “Does that mean they will tell you?” he asked. Vernon, who is on the county Board of Health, said he’s posed that question, but has not received a response.

He said funeral homes need that information to keep the staff safe. He hopes privacy issues don’t interfere with the safety of transporters and embalmers.

If one of the four Vernon funeral directors is diagnosed with COVID-19 and has been in contact with the other three funeral directors, all four will be quarantined and there will be no funeral director or embalmer to tend to business. For that reason, one director has been kept separated from the others.

Vernon said Vernon funeral homes have changed certain practices to help keep transporters and embalmers safe, but that this requires the use of limited Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). He said the scarcity of protective wear could impact funeral home staffs the way it is impacting medical providers.

Now, there is enough protective gear. “But, if we have an outbreak, it will be a concern,” Vernon said.

Vernon Funeral Home directors (from left to right) Dave, Colin and Tammy Vernon display some of the Personal Protective Equipment generally used while embalming a body. Funeral Home directors (from left to right) Dave, Colin and Tammy Vernon display some of the Personal Protective Equipment generally used while embalming a body. Christopher Selmek | Urbana Daily Citizen
Funerals, viewings no longer ‘traditional’

By Kathy Fox

[email protected]

Kathy Fox can be reached at 937-652-1331, ext. 1773.

Kathy Fox can be reached at 937-652-1331, ext. 1773.