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Funeral homes adjust as COVID-19 upends the business of death

white casket with flowers on top being carried by pallbearers

COVID-19 has changed life as we know it here in Michigan.

It’s also changed death.

As more people die from the disease, funeral homes are making radical adjustments to help families mourn their loved ones without putting more lives in danger.

Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek has spoken with some funeral directors about the changes they’re making. Here is a summary of what they reported.

“I feel like everybody has PTSD at this point”

Funeral homes are seeing an influx of people who died from COVID-19. Their families are grieving, unsettled, and struggling.

“People are passing away at an alarming rate,” said Charita Butler, owner of Butler Funeral Home, a small funeral home on Detroit’s east side. “Families are just really in a frenzy. It’s something that I’ve never seen before, quite honestly.”

“A lot of the families are anxious. I feel like everybody has PTSD at this point. We had one poor family that lost two people in their family within 24 hours.”

Last week, Butler said she had to do something she’s never done before — turn families down because the business is struggling to serve the clients it already has.

The funerals they are having are not “business as usual at all,” Butler said. Because of fears that funeral-goers might themselves have COVID-19, and large gatherings are banned, Butler said they’ve had to adjust how they conduct visitations.

The solution: a sort of “revolving visitation,” where just a few mourners are allowed in the room at one time, followed by another small group.

“People want to see their loved one since they weren’t able to see them in the hospital,” Butler said. “So what we’re doing is allowing a viewing for like one hour with just a few people.”

“Virtual funerals” and other alternatives take off

Funerals are also increasingly taking place online.

“Funeral webcasting has become increasingly common during this crisis, where the funeral home is able to essentially broadcast services through its website,” said Phil Douma, a funeral director in Okemos and executive director of the Michigan Funeral Director’s Association.

Drive-by funeral processions are another common alternative, said Tim Schramm, funeral director at Howe-Peterson Funeral Home in Dearborn and Taylor.

“We have taken the procession to the community, where we’ve had a scheduled procession with the funeral coach and casket, and maybe one or two family cars," Schramm said.

"And we passed through the neighborhood letting people know approximately what time we will be coming through, [and] asking them to come out of their house to acknowledge the family.”

Funeral homes are also making creative use of their space, Schramm said.

“We have a set of double glass doors in in our main entrances,” he said. “And so we literally put the deceased between those double glass doors so that the family could come up onto our porch and view their mother, spend a little time with their mother, while they were completely outside the building."

"And then one of our funeral directors stood in the parking lot, more than six feet away, as the family stood gathered on the porch and did a prayer service. And then we processed to the cemetery and the family witnessed the internment.”

Schramm said many families are also choosing simply to delay funerals, and opt for holding a memorial service once the pandemic has passed.

A string of challenges

But the number of families delaying funerals — along with the sheer number of people dying in the pandemic — puts another strain funeral homes: they’re running out of space to store bodies.

Some are looking for additional storage space, like refrigerated trailers, to get them through this period. 

"If one of my team members get something from doing their job that costs them or one of their family members their life, that would tear me apart inside as a person." -Tim Schramm, Howe-Peterson Funeral Home

Others, like Charita Butler, are not allowing families to delay services because they don’t have the space to hold bodies.

Tim Schramm said shortages of personal protective equipment are also stressing funeral homes. Employees who interact with the public and clean up after services need masks and gloves. And those who transport and embalm the bodies are potentially at even greater risk.

Schramm said it’s unclear how long a dead body may shed the COVID-19 virus, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advises keeping at least three feet away from one. That’s obviously not possible for the workers who handle the bodies, so they must wear full PPE while they do their job.

Schramm said PPE supplies for funeral homes started to get choked off in early February. Now he said they’re making adjustments the best they can, such as using one set of equipment all day when they normally would use multiple sets, while employees who deal with the public get one mask per week. And one person is assigned to work with all positive or presumptive-positive COVID-19 decedents to limit the number of people who might be exposed, and to conserve PPE.

“Safety is my biggest concern,” Schramm said. “Because if one of my team members get something from doing their job that costs them or one of their family members their life, that would tear me apart inside as a person.”

There have been other hitches to contend with. Phil Douma said medical certification is needed to dispose of a body, and in the case of cremation, the Medical Examiner’s sign-off is also required. Both of those processes have been slowed down because the system is overwhelmed.

Then there’s the usually-straightforward matter of reaching a decedent’s next of kin.

“It is not at all uncommon that a COVID-19 decedent, his or her next of kin may be unavailable because of being treated for COVID-19 infection in the hospital,” Douma said.

Douma said watching families have to grapple with these additional hurdles in their time of grief has been “heartbreaking.” The usual “healing touch” that a traditional funeral can provide has become unattainable for many.

Despite that, grieving families have overwhelmingly been “amazingly cooperative,” Douma said. “They understand the importance of complying with the current restrictions put into place to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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