Funerals look different today than they did just one month ago. The Coronavirus pandemic continues to alter our lives in new ways, seemingly on a daily basis. As we social distance, we also reflect and remain hopeful for a return to “normal.” For now, funeral rituals are changing rapidly to meet the needs and requirements of this crisis. It’s likely there will also be a lasting impact on what funerals will look like in the coming months or even years in parts of the country.
Traditional funerals have been evolving over the last few years with the rise of the death positive movement. Cremation is now the norm in most of the country including New Hampshire, where nearly 80% choose the option. One of the benefits of a cremation is that an end-of-life service doesn’t have to happen immediately after the person dies. Memorial services can happen months after the passing.
We touched on how the funeral rituals change for families during the pandemic in a previous post and since then, Phaneuf has worked with seven families who experienced Coronavirus-related deaths. A couple of those families chose to wait until the social distancing regulations ease so they can hold a traditional wake, service and burial at a cemetery with all family and friends able to attend and participate.
Holding a funeral a month after someone passes is not unusual. We do make additional preparations during the embalming process that allow for a delayed open-casket viewing. Beyond a month, we cannot guarantee an open casket, but we can promise a full service with a casket even two months after someone’s passing.
This is relatively common with our locations in northern New Hampshire where cemeteries close for the winter and families choose to bury their loved ones once spring arrives.
With the Coronavirus-related deaths our team has encountered thus far, the deaths occurred at nursing homes and hospitals. Those staffs have protocols for body preparation and transportation, as does ours. In some cases, the body is pre-wrapped to control potential exposure from the virus. We remain hyper-vigilant in our safety efforts.
We are more concerned about our contact with family members of the deceased. They may have been in direct contact with the deceased before symptoms arose, and family members with the virus may not yet show symptoms.
Thankfully, the latest predictions for deaths in New Hampshire are lower than initial expectations. We don’t foresee the necessity of refrigerated vehicles that hospitals and funeral homes in other regions have been utilizing, as death counts are higher there. According to National Public Radio, NH’s peak date was April 9.
Neufeld Funeral Home in Elmhurst, NY is only 250 miles from Phaneuf’s primary location in Manchester, NH. They are in “the epicenter of the epicenter,” experiencing their busiest weeks ever according to a recent Washington Post article. The workload in upcoming weeks is very likely to increase, as New York City has the highest number of confirmed Coronavirus cases and associated deaths in our nation. They are learning the lessons that will be making their way across other parts of the country, as the peak of deaths will occur at different times in different states.
Some crematories and funeral homes can’t handle the influx. We’ve been in touch with a peer who operates eight funeral homes in Long Island, and his team is struggling to keep up. Members of our team are traveling there next week, to deliver a loved one who died in NH to be buried in New York. The funeral homes there are low on personal protective equipment, so we’re bringing extra body bags, gloves, and supplies to keep them going.
A funeral director from Washington state spoke poignantly about this issue in another recent Washington Post article.
“While our work is deemed essential — by the authorities and by all of humanity, day in, day out — the outbreak has changed virtually everything for us: We’re arranging to bury the deceased, and people who work at our funeral home are the only witnesses to the burials,” said Char Barrett, funeral director and owner of A Sacred Moment funeral services in Everett, Wash. “We can’t let extended families visit with their loved ones one last time. We take elaborate, painstaking precautions when handling the bodies of people who died of COVID-19, to avoid spreading the epidemic. And we’re aware, through it all, that there is more death to come,” The Washington Post article states.
It pains us to tell families the limited options currently available. Today, there’s no visitation, no service with eulogies and goodbyes, no gathering at the cemetery. The funeral rituals we know – the ones that give families comfort – have vanished. Visitations and services with everyone able to attend may return by early summer, but it remains to be seen how this pandemic affects these rituals long term.
Yes, funeral rituals change, and they’ve changed historically. Death and how we handle it evolves. This pandemic will most certainly have a lasting impact on end-of-life rituals.
It’s often said funerals are not for the dead but for the living. Part of that is the comfort that comes with gathering together. How soon will we hug each other for comfort? Or shake hands? These answers are unclear. For now, we remain vigilant and hopeful.