COVID-19 Virus and Funerals

An overview by Ann Randall Kendrick - UPDATED: April 10, 2020

We continue to receive questions from the public, caregiving partners and families in regard to the current virus situation and its impact on what we do.    The reason that we, as funeral directors, are licensed and regulated is for exactly this reason.   We are trained and informed in epidemiology and infection control and are employing every precaution necessary for the protection of public health as we receive daily updates from the National Funeral Directors Association and other organizations we belong to  who are in direct communication with the  governmental regulatory agencies.   We are also communicating with funeral directors from around the nation and state, including those in the “epicenters” as to what they are experiencing and what we might be preparing for.

As of April 9, Governor Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-42, which extends her earlier "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order to April 30.  In this new order, the Governor specifically lists attending a funeral as an essential activity for which individuals may leave their place of residence, "provided that no more than 10 people are in attendance at the funeral".  This order has the force of law and is punishable as a misdemeanor.  While we have been following the federal guidelines and the Michigan Funeral Directors Association recommendations that no more than ten people be allowed in one room at a single time, this new order appears to limit total attendance at the funeral to ten people.  Furthermore, the previous guidelines stress that  no one should be attending any event (including arrangement conferences) if they have tested positive or are under investigation or testing for COVID-19, have been in close proximity with a positive individual, have a fever or cold/flu symptoms or have recently travelled, even domestically.  We are all aware of the very serious situation in southeast Michigan and the need for using extreme caution at this time.

How are you making funeral arrangements?

The State of Michigan has recognized all mortuary workers as essential service providers so we are exempt from the shelter-at-home order if working.   However, we are keeping most of our staff at home so that they are available as back-up teams should the “skeleton crews” currently coming in fall ill.  We are encouraging arranging families to meet with us over the phone or via technology.  We are suggesting that no more than two individuals come to the funeral home for arrangement-making if an in-person meeting is required and that all social distancing practices be followed.  In the previous post we detailed the cleaning protocols we continue to use on an hourly basis in our facilities.  In Oakland County, temperature taking and bans on anyone who has travelled are in place for funeral facilities.  We may be at that point in coming days.    So far, our experience is that most people are very concerned and appreciative of all precautions being observed for their safety. 

How will this impact grieving families?

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who will be speaking in Port Huron this fall for us,   released a statement yesterday in which he warns against the path of least resistance—“in this circumstance, we’ll just do nothing”—the culture of de-ritualizing around death that was becoming epidemic in today’s society even before the pandemic.    Dr. Wolfelt makes two statements of importance:  1) anything that delays a funeral delays the natural mourning and healing process.  2)  You can’t push “pause” on grief.  People will continue to feel their grief but will have fewer options to express it and find support.  Coupled with the emotional fatigue, anxiety and fear that are rampant right now, grief can become overwhelming. Wolfelt urges caregivers, clergy, hospice nurses, and funeral directors to step into our role as gatekeepers surrounding the importance of meaningful funerals.  Families must not be deprived of their right to mourn or have a ceremony simply because the timing of the death is overshadowed by circumstances.  We can and will provide safe alternatives and options to meet meets.

What options do we have if a death has occurred?

If an open public event is impossible, there are many ideas to consider.   A service tailored to the family’s situation and desires is always what we strive to provide.    We can webcast or record  private events so that others  can watch at home either live-streamed or recorded;  services can be  delayed until such time as the crisis subsides (which allows families to design and plan their service in a leisurely way now);  funerals can be held by invitation only;  visitations can be scheduled with reservation times;  we can hold open-air graveside cemetery committals, drive-thru visitations and processions (everyone remaining in their cars), services with  small numbers of family spread out  in large churches or chapels (where allowed) or help plan  small home ceremonies; these ideas are all being used in various areas.  We are ready, willing and able to handle whatever death care needs arise in our community and that is true of funeral service across the country.  Death is never convenient and Americans have often had to mourn under less than ideal national circumstances.  We will take care of each other and get through this together (but 6 feet apart!). 

Must we have an immediate disposition?

It is possible to have a private open casket or viewing, EVEN IF the person died of the virus.  However, it may be impractical, which we will discuss in a later paragraph.  Victims may be buried or cremated—there is no legal or practical necessity for unusual disposition practices as are being reported overseas.   With some diseases, this has and could occur. Fortunately, COVID-19 is effectively killed by appropriate disinfection.   Over the years, our firm, our staff and funeral service have dealt with many diseases that threatened public health.  Several of them have been more concerning from a mortality standpoint than the current pandemic.   It appears that the current problem lies more in getting scarce supplies and equipment to the hot spot areas.      

Our care centers, embalmers and protocols are designed to deal with contagious diseases.   Our ventilation systems are designed to separate the care center air from the rest of the buildings.     Proper embalming is designed to make the body safe for public viewing.  Grieving, mourning, honoring the body and saying good-bye to a loved one are important and necessary.  Death is rarely convenient and the current situation, while requiring flexibility, should not prevent families from meeting their immediate needs in this regard.   

“There is no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation with the embalmed body of someone who died of COVID-19 as the virus spreads when the infected person exhales or sneezes infected droplets” (C.D.C.statement of 3/12).   However, because we are still learning about the spread of this disease, we do advise families not to touch, kiss or handle the remains if COVID-19 is suspected. 

The problem right now is not the presence of the body at the service, but the gathering of living people, which is the essence of what we instinctively do at a time of loss.  Temporarily changing our habits and emotional responses is necessary to protect lives.   We can creatively rethink this and perhaps even improve our traditions.

Although there have been concerns raised by the W.H.O. and published by the National Funeral Directors Association in early April, the C.D.C. is continuing to stand by these original statements. We have also received correspondence from the Dodge Chemical Company and other embalming experts as to best procedures for embalming COVID cases. That said, many funeral homes are concerned or unwilling to embalm due to the additional risks to their employees and in some cases, the lack of personal protective equipment, currently being preserved for medical and first responder needs. Others, particularly in the metropolitan areas, are overwhelmed with the demands on their staff and resources and are understandably unable to provide a full range of service options at this time. All of them are doing their best to serve their families, protect their employees and prioritize the most essential needs. We encourage you to work with your selected funeral director to make the best possible decisions.

Our personal experience so far has been that in the case of some COVID deaths, the closest family members have also been exposed and are quarantined. Others are extremely wary of the danger of this disease that has taken their loved one, and are not in favor of gathering immediately with anyone. Distant family cannot travel now. Therefore, most people are deciding to cremate or bury immediately and to hold services after restrictions are lifted. While this is often not what they would desire, it may make sense under the circumstances. For the short-term, we must all continue to make decisions on a case-by-case and family-by-family and day-by-day basis.

Can we view the body if it is not embalmed?

We typically allow and encourage direct cremation families to have an unembalmed viewing or I.D.  prior to cremation for the immediate family members.  Due to the current situation, we are suspending this practice temporarily for the protection of family members, other visitors to the facilities and our staff members.  All viewing must be preceded by embalming and disinfection until the COVID-19 situation abates.  Embalming is only performed with permission of the next-of-kin.

What if you get sick?

Our staff has been divided into three teams that are serving each of our three buildings (Pollock-Randall, Karrer-Simpson and Marysville Funeral Homes) independently.  Each building has a separate care center and can operate on a stand-alone basis.  If one team or building becomes unavailable, the other teams will shift and take over.  We also anticipate Michigan Funeral Directors Association funeral homes throughout the state will work together to cover any areas with incapacitated funeral homes. 

What is keeping you positive?

Our faith in Jesus.  We are blessed with many incredible Christ followers of diverse backgrounds who serve on our team.  I am personally encouraged daily by the Christian witness and service my staff exhibits.   We are all praying for all those affected, especially our nurses, doctors and first responders as well as their spouses, parents and children.  Please join us and the nation in prayer.   Psalm 91 has given great comfort to the church over the ages in times of trial.  My personal favorite verse, Philippians 4:6-7 got me through my last cancer journey and taught me that “Fear not” is a command and choice to obey the Lord, always followed by “the peace that passes understanding”.  If you need a Bible, we highly recommend the Gideon Bible App which contains multiple language options.   Download it from Gideons.Bible.is or search for the Gideon Bible App and install it from the App Store on your Apple device or the Play Store on your Android device.

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