COVID-19 and grieving: the impact of a pandemic on funeral services

Sari Green/Courier Many families are having to put funeral services on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the moment, the number of people who can be inside funeral homes, and at graveside services is limited. Funeral home directors all over Canada are doing all they can to ensure families can have funerals, even if it means using technology such as live streaming to allow everyone to be able to attend, even if they can’t do so in person. “Families ask me, ‘David, when will things return to normal’? I can’t answer that. I have no idea. This could potentially go another year,” said Humphreys’ Funeral Home Director, David Humphreys.

St. Stephen – Many businesses have been impacted by COVID-19, not least being the funeral industry. In New Brunswick, there are strict rules in place regarding how funerals and visitations can be held, and these restrictions are not only hard on families, but also funeral directors. The rules seem to change almost weekly, and it can be very difficult to keep up with new rules and protocols during these uncertain times.

Alward Mehan of Mehan’s Funeral Home in St. Stephen said that during the Red phase of recovery, only one family bubble was allowed to be inside the building for visitation. In the Orange phase, they can allow up to 10 people, plus funeral home staff. This makes it difficult for families to be able to decide who can and cannot attend funeral services.

“The government has told us we’re limited to a single family bubble for visitation,” said Mehan. “If someone in your family dies and you want to have visitation, only up to 10 plus my staff can be in the funeral home. There’s no public visitations. It has to be limited to a single household.”

Mehan said it is difficult to conduct in-person meetings with family members to make funeral arrangements. He said they often do this over the telephone now, or using technology such as a Zoom call. He added this method can be particularly difficult for seniors who do not understand the technology and how to use it. But, it is necessary in order to keep everyone safe and healthy.

“It’s hard to do in-person meetings,” said Mehan. “We have to do it over the phone or virtually. They (seniors) don’t understand (technology). I don’t want any blame for an outbreak. People are still traveling out of the zones. We have to do contact tracing.”

Mehan said one of the saddest things families face is not being able to have large funerals. He said many services have been put on hold until they are able to bring more family members and other well-wishers. After all, many families have relations in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world. Even relatives from Calais aren’t allowed to come over for funerals at this time.

“There are people who can’t have funerals,” said Mehan. “There are people who are on hold. Look at funeral home websites. As of now, funeral services or celebrations of life are being held on a later date to be announced.”

Unfortunately, the rules seem to be constantly changing, which creates even more difficulty for grieving families and funeral directors.

“When we go back to Orange phase, our association and the government will give us a new set of regulations that we’ll have to follow. Every time they change phases, they give us updates of what we can do and what we can’t do. It’s day by day right now.”

Funeral Director Fred Brennan of the St. George Funeral Home said it is certainly sad to see how things have changed over the past year or so. Helping grieving families is his biggest concern, and he has had to find new and different ways to help them mourn the loss of loved ones. He said funeral services have changed over the past couple of decades anyway, but nothing has prepared anyone for the effects of COVID-19.

“My big thing is closure, by not giving enough time for closure, this is going to affect mental health,” said Brennan. “We have to know that we must grieve our losses. I think every time they put a restriction on something, even though it’s probably a good thought, it’s not taking the time to think about what it’s going to do for this particular circumstance, for example, losing a loved one.”

Brennan is concerned about the lack of correspondence he has received from the government about how he can go about helping families during their time of mourning. He said the rules change so quickly, and he and his staff just do their best to deal with the families and take care of their needs. He said the first time the province was in Red, it was a total lockdown. The latest Red phase, according to Brennan, was little more than a “glorified Orange”.

Another concern for Brennan is how to deal with large families, because of the limited numbers that can attend funeral services. He said it can be difficult for families to determine how to memorialize their loved ones. It is causing many people to have to put funeral plans on hold, which can lead to even more problems down the road.

“You may have a family of six or seven siblings,” said Brennan. “If you’re the only one here in the province, it makes it difficult for other members to come in. So, you have to make a decision whether or not to try to have somebody prepared or embalmed, and hoping it’s going to last until a few months when other family members can come in. The question is, will it change so the family members can come in? It almost prolongs the grieving process too. The other thing is, the more we put something off, for example a memorial service for a loved one, but under the restrictions we can’t do it the way we want to do it.”

Brennan said he understands Public Health is simply looking out for the best interests of everyone in the province, but this doesn’t mean much to families who are grieving. They can’t allow family members from other areas to attend the services, because incoming travelers can put people here in jeopardy. He said this is definitely a “catch-22” situation, and it is changing the funeral business and the way people mourn.

“Usually, within the first couple of weeks of losing a loved one is the time to have a memorial. The longer we go, and then things change for the worse, then we still don’t have that memorial service. What the family planned for a loved one cannot be fulfilled because we waited too long. It’s sad. It’s a hard situation, that’s for darned sure.”

Dave Humphreys of Humphreys’ Funeral Home in St. Stephen said things have been “interesting” since the beginning of the pandemic. He said the way they work with families has been extremely different, and there likely isn’t a funeral director in Canada who hasn’t tried to do as much as humanly possible for grieving families and to help give them some closure.

“Certainly, we can’t do things the way we used to,” said Humphreys. “Maritimers have been able to, in the past, been able to come together, commune together, grieve together, even with a simple handshake, celebrating the life either at the church or the funeral home.

We just haven’t been able to do that the way we’ve been used to.”

Humphreys said he takes steps to manage the number of people in attendance safely, for the sake of everyone, including the families, himself and his family, and his staff and their families. They are doing all they can to ensure that everyone can grieve properly, and safely. He added that it has been quite difficult, especially when there are large families and they have to decide which members can attend and which cannot.

“Where do you draw the line,” asked Humphreys. “Who can be part of that 25? When you have a public visitation requested by the family, they’re asked to decide who’s going to sit out of that and who represents the family. If 10 members of a family of 50 decide they’re going to represent the family, we can only let 15 members of the public in. They can only stay for about 10 or 15 minutes, wear the masks, and respect physical distancing. You’ve got lines drawn on the floor, you have sections taped off, and you’re trying to discourage people from crossing that line. It just becomes a very clinical environment. It makes it very hard to grieve properly when you have to worry about that.”

Humphreys said many people who feel like they are among the vulnerable may decide it is best for them to not attend funeral services or visitation. He said if anyone is feeling anxious or vulnerable because of the pandemic, they shouldn’t attend. There are other ways they can support the families without actually being present.

“We can meet with families,” said Humphreys. “Even when we were in Red over this past week, we can still meet with the families as long as it is the household bubble. Through all of this, we’ve encouraged families to just have the key arranger and maybe one other support person to keep the numbers at a minimum.”

One thing that Humphreys is doing, along with many other funeral directors, is taking advantage of technology to allow people to watch funeral services without having to attend in person. This is particularly important for anyone who feels vulnerable and worries about contracting COVID-19. He said they are able to make funeral arrangements via telephone, email, and fax, and they can also do video conferencing. But, not everyone is able to use technology easily.

“With this limit of 25 in attendance, both indoors and out, we do have the ability to live stream the service to the general public, or to designated members of the family and extended family,” said Humphreys. “The nice thing about our broadcast system, even if they might not be able to see it at the time, the link that we provide will always be there so they can see it after the service has concluded. They will never miss it. There are many funeral homes throughout the countries that are doing it now. I’ve reached families in Sweden, Germany, B.C., Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia.

“It’s not the same mind you, but the family and members of the public can support the family from afar.”

Humphreys said one of the biggest challenges with using this type of technology is Internet service. If someone lives in an area where they don’t get good reception, they may not able to log onto a Zoom call to watch a funeral service.

“You may not have a proper signal, and that becomes a great challenge,” said Humphreys. “It has put many challenges on both family members, and us as funeral professionals, all across the board in how we navigate families through this. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ll go to the mat for any family that I serve, and we’ve done that over the past year. I’ll do whatever I can to accommodate whatever they need.”

All of Humphrey’s clients have been very respectful about all of the regulations that need to be followed. They understand this is for the safety of the community as a whole, and they are working with funeral directors to be able to have funerals within the guidelines that are set out by the government.

“Families ask me, ‘David, when will things return to normal’? I can’t answer that. I have no idea. This could potentially go another year.”

When we do get back to normal, or what will likely be known as the new normal, will things change much? Humphreys said he thinks things are going to be a bit different. Sanitization will become second nature, and most companies will likely continue the same practices.

“I’m not saying we’ll be wearing masks for the rest of our lives, but sanitization protocols will become more of an ongoing practice. I don’t think we’ll see those things disappear. I would dearly love to see the masks disappear. There’s something to be said about being able to read peoples’ expressions and just the warmth of a smile to comfort somebody in grief.”