Funeral homes adjusting to COVID, some services ‘immediate family only’

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,260 views 

There are lots of activities and events that can be postponed and rescheduled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some things can’t. Vacations can be postponed. Weddings can be rescheduled. Births and deaths cannot.

What has to be adjusted is how these occasions are marked.

Traditionally end of life rituals typically involve many people who knew and loved the deceased to gather together, remember the life and say goodbye.

On March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended organizers of mass gatherings for in-person events of more than 50 be postponed for eight weeks, until May 10. The White House released “The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America – 15 Days to Slow the Spread” March 16, which said people should “avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people” for the next 15 days (March 31).

The National Funeral Directors Association said these guidelines will impact funerals and viewings in that these gatherings need to be limited to “perhaps immediate family only” until March 31.

“After this 15-day period concludes, the restrictions would continue with the CDC’s eight week limitations on mass gatherings,” information on the NFDA website said.

Tuesday (March 24), with the announcement of the first two deaths in Arkansas from COVID-19, the Arkansas Department of Health issued guidance for Arkansas funeral homes saying a “funeral or visitation service can be held for a person who has died (from any cause, including COVID19)” as long as certain guidelines are followed. Those guidelines include that services should be limited to 10 people whenever possible; social distancing and hand hygiene should be observed as much as possible during the service; staff experiencing symptoms should remain home; and visitors with symptoms of illness should be restricted access to the premises unless provided a mask.

The ADH also recommended screening staff daily and all visitors for signs and symptoms of illness and provides a visitor screen tool questionnaire online

Julie Getsinger with Ocker-Putman Funeral Home in Fort Smith said many of their families are choosing direct burials with small family graveside services in lieu of traditional funeral services.

“The vaults are not setting up tents and chairs right now because of the closeness of the chairs in order to comply with social distancing recommendations,” Getsinger said.

The funeral home offers families the option of having a public memorial service at a later date if they wish, but Getsinger said most families are not choosing that option. She said visitations have been eliminated.

Jim Edwards with Edwards Funeral Home in Fort Smith said as far as he knows all funeral homes in the area and most of the churches are complying with CDC guidelines to keep events to no more than 10 people.

Logan Caudle of Van Buren said her family was fortunate to not have to alter much when her grandmother died earlier in March. Betty Hoyle died March 8, which was before “it got as serious as it is now,” Caudle said, noting the family planned quickly. The visitation was March 10 and the funeral was held on March 11.

“We did do a later interment on March 20 due to family not being able to be here for the first date(s), but it wasn’t due to COVID-19. We did have to have a very small gathering at the interment due to COVID-19, but we were blessed in the fact that we were able to have the funeral/visitation before businesses had to close and things changed,” Caudle said.

She said she did have a friend whose grandfather passed away after recommendations changed.

“They had to live stream the service and only include immediate family in person. I can’t imagine how tough that is while trying to honor a loved one,” Caudle said.

Getsinger and Edwards said their business was not being affected by the pandemic. Adjustments are just being made by everyone, Edwards said.

“It is not affecting us that much,” Getsinger said. “Hopefully it does not get to the point that it does.”