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Funeral directors’ jobs changed overnight to accommodate the influx of bodies entering and to provide services to grieving family members who face demands for social distancing.
White House officials predict that 100,000 to 240,000 people in the United States will die from the coronavirus.
Challenges for funeral homes include the inability to provide traditional services to the deceased. State laws in almost all localities have limited the number of people allowed to assemble, which includes funeral services. In most cases, the number of people is limited to five to 10 and includes only the immediate family.
“The hardest part for me is, I think, is that it is sad that people cannot be with their loved ones, and they cannot share the grief,” said David Jacobson, founder of Chicago Jewish Funerals.
Jacobson and other funeral directors have turned to offering their clients virtual services such as shiva.com, a site created by Sympathy Brands for Jewish mourning. The company also operates eCondolence.com and other related websites.
“We are trying to find a possible way to reassure people that they are not getting it. Keep in mind that people cannot say goodbye to their loved ones in the hospital, “he said.
Michael Schimmel, CEO of Sympathy Brands, said his new Viewneral service was created in response to COVID-19. Viewneral serves as a resource for funeral homes and mourners for end-of-life services.
Sites like shiva.com can accommodate up to 500 mourners virtually
With the help of a funeral director, a family plans the Viewneral, invites those who will participate in the service, including the clergy and those who praise it, and allows up to 500 guests to virtually attend and transmit their condolences, according to the company.
“Viewneral will never replace a hug that a bereaved person needs from family and friends, but during this period of social distancing, this will allow loved ones to come together virtually to commemorate the deceased and support the grieving family “, said Schimmel.
Many funeral homes like Jacobson’s offer funeral homes for families to organize a public memorial service for free at a later date.
“Funerals are a community event that brings everyone together in a social setting that involves hugs and a personal touch. Seeing people unable to shake hands really changes the whole thing. It pains me to see that during this difficult time, “said Bryant Hightower, President of the National Funeral Directors Association.
Another challenge the funeral industry is facing right now is where to keep all the bodies.
“If the current death rate continues across the country, it could double the number of deaths we see in a given year,” said Hightower.
Refrigerated trucks are lined up behind NYU Langone Hospital on March 30, 2020 in New York.
Stéphanie Keith | Getty Images
According to the association, funeral homes can handle eight to ten bodies at a time, which means that many are forced to find alternatives to store the bodies. In New York, the increasing number of deaths has led the authorities to set up makeshift morgues in anticipation of the increase in the number of corpses. The crematoria also work overtime. Hightower said they are now operating 24 hours a day, doubling their response capacity, but the arrears remain a reality.
Another challenge is the shortage of personal protective equipment. The lifespan of the virus in human remains remains to be determined, but funeral homes are told by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it is safe to embalm the remains as long as they follow safety procedures, which which includes wearing a full coat, face shield, mask and other PPE items. According to Hightower, most funeral homes have a 30-day supply.
“We have funeral homes across the country that are extremely low,” he said. Other supplies, such as coffins and embalming agents, are all made in the United States and the supply remains strong, he said.
The American funeral industry has 19,136 funeral homes, according to the association. Almost 90% belong to families or individuals. The rest are public companies which include Service Corporation International (10%), Carriage Services and StoneMor Partners (1% each).
The industry also faces challenges for workers. Before the crisis, funeral directors and certified crematorium operators were already in short supply and the workforce was aging. The association said it had created a database looking for volunteers. On the first day, nearly 300 people intervened.
As the economy approaches a likely recession, people are losing their jobs and living in precarious financial circumstances, a consequence that is felt in funeral homes.
Hightower said that although funeral homes are busier than ever, COVID-19 is not good for business. Mourners spend less money and funeral homes have fewer options to offer.
But now more than ever, it’s more than money. Many funeral homes like the Chicago Jewish Home offer charity and financial aid to the needy.
“There was never any talk of dollars and cents. It’s about the heart, but now we have to open our heart, “said Jacobson.