As social distancing becomes the new “normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic, funeral homes are being innovative and abiding by the rules of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while trying to provide the family with a sense of peace and closure when a loved one has died.
“This is so new,” Matthews Funeral Director Felicia Matthews of Wharton said. “We are learning a new process to accommodate the family. Everything is learned off the cuff.”
In addition to social distancing, funeral homes must keep staff and visitors safe by regularly sanitizing their facility as small groups come and go during times of visitation, if there is an alloted time for this.
“We try to follow the CDC policies,” Jimmy Triska, funeral director at Triska Funeral Home in El Campo, said. “We are limiting it to 10.”
And this number includes staff on hand as well as an officiant, if the service is held in the chapel of the funeral home or at the gravesite. So if there are three staff inside the facility, only seven family members would be allowed to congregate at one time.
As the Leader-News visited with area funeral homes, it discovered each are holding services in different ways.
“Most of ours are grave side services with a possible memorial service at a later date,” Triska said. “This will allow the public a chance to be with the family.”
For now, friends can visit Triska’s website to leave words of condolence.
“This allows them a way to make some kind of contact with the family,” he said.
Matthew’s Funeral Home’s services for an El Campo man last week included family visitation one day over a period of three hours. Then they had another for friends the next day, followed by a graveside service for immediate family only.
“We tried to be as accommodating as possible with two viewings. It worked very well. The family was extremely happy,” Matthews said. “It took a little more work. We just have to be creative.”
There was no procession from the funeral home to the cemetery, though. While it may not be a “traditional black service,” she said, “you don’t want them to feel shortchanged. We told the family we would meet them at the cemetery ... so not to have people congregating and they understood.”
To manage the flow during visitation, Matthews said the alloted number entered one door and went out another. Hands were sanitized as they entered and departed. During each shift, staff disinfected the inside of the chapel so others could enter safely for a turn to pay their respects.
A graveside service recently held in Victoria was attended by a small group of family members. Others who wished to pay their respects parked in the cemetery at a considerable distance from the burial site, either sitting in their car with the window rolled down or standing by their car as the service was broadcast across the area for all to hear.
Another adjustment by funeral homes is limiting the number of family during the planning process. A host of family members to finalize funeral details is no longer allowed.
“We limit it to two to three people when making arrangements,” Triska said.
Many of the arrangements can be made over the phone or by email Triska added.
Recent funeral services conducted by Triska’s have taken place at the funeral home and/or graveside, none have taken place in a church setting since the order went into place.
Funeral homes must take added precautions when picking up and handling the body. While certain protective gear is typically used, funeral homes are having to take extra measures not to become infected themselves.
“We have to use our own discretion and be very careful. We’ve always used gloves, but not face masks,” Triska said. “We will use more of this until who knows when.”
“Now when we’re going to pick up a body, we wear a gown, gloves and mask as a precaution when we go into the hospital,” Matthews added. “Nothing needs to be passed on to you.”
So far, neither funeral home has had to do a service for a coronavirus patient.
“We have not had to pick up a case and hope we never do,” Triska said. “We just have to be real careful.”
For now, Triska has enough protective gear, but fears he may run out.
“Our problem is getting supplies,” he said. “We need protection in transferring the body because air can expel from their lungs when moving them.”
When a person dies, they are tested for COVID-19, according to Matthews.
“Otherwise, they won’t have an accurate count of how many actually died of COVID-19,” Matthews said.
Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has put a different spin on everything when it comes to safety and trying to provide family a service with respect and dignity.
“This is an invisible enemy,” Triska said. “When HIV came about, there were a lot of unknowns about that too. If HIV was outside the body, it died instantly. This virus, we don’t know if it lasts two hours or two days. We’ve had to deal with crisis before, but this is a different level.”