COVID-19 has touched many aspects of daily life, not excluding funerals.
From limitations on how many mourners can attend services to traditions for families, many aspects of funerals have seen changes.
“It’s changed all the way around,” said James Chism, owner and funeral director of Chism Family Funeral Home in Vine Grove. “As far as meeting the families, we have to make sure we’re at a safe distance. We’ve had to hire a lady to clean in between every service. We’re only allowed to have one person in the restroom at a time. We do have to ask everybody to wear face masks. We’re not allowed to have food or drinks in the building. Just so much stuff has changed.”
Tommy Brown, co-owner and funeral director of Brown Funeral Home in Elizabethtown, said the changes were more restrictive at the start of the pandemic and have since eased.
“At the very beginning you were limited to having only 10 people in for a service,” he said. “At that time, you could alternate — you could have 10 people in, those 10 could leave and then 10 more could come in. That’s all changed now, of course.
Those attendance limitations caused some changes in how families approached handling their loved ones service, Brown said.
“Families were just doing a 10-person visitation and they might have a few more come in later on,” he said. “Then they were doing a graveside service. Now it’s come back to where they’re doing funerals again.”
Sometimes those limitations caused added disappointment to an already difficult situation for a grieving family, Brown said.
“Several were very upset over it,” he said. “You have a lot of understanding people and some that weren’t so understanding as far as that goes. When you limit it to, let’s say, 30 people, a lot of immediate families are bigger than that when you consider the kids, their spouses, grandkids and their spouses. And when you have to figure in having to leave someone out, that’s hard for some people to do and it’s understandable that they’re upset over it.”
Chism said the changing of restrictions caused frustration for clients.
“Seems like early on, there was a lot of confusion as far as restrictions,” he said. “It seemed like half the people understood and knew what needed to be done. The other half was trying to figure out where all this was going.”
By the time Autumn O’Neal of Elizabethtown had to make arrangements for her father, Jeffrey Hickerson, in November, she said it was by choice to limit attendance for his visitation. With elderly relatives, some who had to travel long distances and others who had tested positive for the coronavirus recently, she felt it was the right decision to make.
“While (the funeral home was) willing to accommodate pretty much what we wanted, just the overall considerations of being able to have a lot of people or opening that up was a lot different,” she said. “Some of that was by choice, just because we felt less comfortable having a more traditional service and part of that was the restrictions. But a lot of it was our choice, too. We didn’t feel like it was responsible to have a normal funeral.”
Another change Brown has seen is families shifting to shortened services, instead of extending them over two days or more.
“The typical is having the visitation one day and the burial the next day,” he said. “There’s still a few doing that but, most of them, when you consider how few of people can come, don’t. More people can come but, at the same time, not as many as you would expect under normal circumstances. It makes sense for most families to do it all in one day.”
For Hickerson’s funeral, O’Neal and her family opted to hold visitation, funeral and burial all in the same day.
“We had a short time for viewing and the service,” she said. “It wasn’t at all like I thought it would be. Without COVID, without a pandemic, it would have been a huge funeral and a really great time of just sharing his life and experiences with so many people.”
Under normal circumstances, she said her father would have wanted a large funeral.
“In any other situation, my dad would have had a huge funeral,” O’Neal said. “He was the type of person who was very gregarious and outgoing, made friends with anybody, never-met-a-stranger type of person. Had a really large community of people that he was close to. It would have been a huge event and I think he would have liked that. You know, the idea of all of his friends and family coming together would have made him happy.
“I think being able to connect with so many people that he had a relationship with to share those stories, it would have been a much different experience,” she added. “That was very disappointing.”
Brown said a family’s casket consideration also has changed in the wake of COVID.
“People don’t purchase the copper and bronze caskets anymore,” he said. “It’s very rare that they buy anything like that. But when you figure in a family is only going to see this person in that casket for two to three hours, it does affect what they pick out a lot of times. They’re looking at the cost of the casket compared to how long they’re going to view it.”
Chism has noticed interactions between guests to the funeral home has shifted.
“One thing I’ve noticed that changed is shaking somebody’s hand,” he said, adding that hugging also has been limited. “It was normal for so long just for somebody to come in and shake hands. Now I guess people are getting used to not doing it. Some stand there and look at you like, ‘What do we do?’ and we end up doing an elbow bump.”
For O’Neal, another missing component from her father’s funeral was the fellowship around a meal or food in the funeral home lounge.
“The funeral home, they aren’t opening up their lounge and kitchen to food, which is part of a traditional Southern funeral,” she said. “But traditionally, there’s the meal afterwards. Half the time, that’s a chance to be with family.”
O’Neal said the meal afterward is where family can catch up, and other family members felt as if they didn’t have a role to play because they usually organized and cooked the meal.
“That, of course, couldn’t happen either, at least in the traditional way,” she said. “That’s another big part of healing. We’ve integrated that so much in our culture. It’s a whole process we’re used to and we absolutely did not get that part either.”
Still a handful of clients are opting to forgo any public service to have celebration of life at a later date, once large gatherings are once again allowed, Chism said.
“We’ve had several people who have chosen cremation and, for instance, may want to have a service at (Kentucky Veterans Cemetery-Central),” he said. “They say they’re going to wait until more people can be there.”
O’Neal said that wasn’t an option for her family because she felt they needed closure.
“I know some people have opted to do a celebration of life once things are better, but at this point, we started to move forward,” she said. “I think prolonging that idea of doing something else, I think it wouldn’t be the same. I don’t know how people who haven’t had any kind of service that have planned for that how they feel, but I would think it would prolong the process of grieving.
“We’ll always be missing that part, that closure, connecting all the dots, seeing all the impact that he made, that I know he made,” she said. “Talking to people that I don’t know that were close to him.”
For now, Chism said the funeral home will continue to adapt to changes and follow appropriate guidelines, but hopes one day soon families can have the service they want for their loved ones.
“Be nice if we knew where the end in sight will be,” he said. “We still just can’t see it.”