Just as funeral directors have been forced to deal with changes in the industry – like more and more families opting for cremations over cemetery burials – they now have to contend with a worldwide pandemic that has killed more than 670,000 people in the United States.
As communities locked down, and medical experts and authorities suggested social distancing and the use of masks, funeral directors also were compelled to adjust how they worked and handled funerals, especially those who had died from COVID-19.
“Initially, we didn’t have a choice — they were all going to be cremated,” says Anthony Quahliero, Co-Founder of Keystone Funeral Services. “We weren’t even having people in the funeral home.”
And this made the crucial grieving process even tougher for families.
People died alone in hospitals, not surrounded by their loved ones. “Family members didn’t see them die, and they couldn’t do anything for them afterwards, even some type of funeral,” he says. “We were doing funeral arrangements online or by phone.”
The pandemic forced many funeral homes to hold memorial services at a later date, he says, “but that didn’t happen that much. There were a few, very, very few.”
For Quahliero, the main issue during the pandemic has not been any trepidation from handling bodies, but from keeping his staff and visitors as safe as possible.
And, now, he says, as society has opened up more and people try to resume a sense of normalcy, people are more comfortable talking about it.
“The COVID conversation comes up more frequently,” he says, adding he suggests to families wanting to have visitors to consider asking people to wear masks or socially distance. “We suggest putting something in the obituary about taking precautions,” he says, “but we can’t force people to do that.”
But, Quahliero says, “people are much more conscious of that and are being more protective.”
So is he.
He initially always wore a mask during funerals and got vaccinated. He also did most of the work himself, instead of bringing in his part-time staff. He also made sure that social distancing was possible in his funeral homes.
Once local communities started removing pandemic precautions, Quahliero says he, too, opened up the funeral home and had public visitations.
But, there, too, he has seen a change.
Fewer people attend funerals or visit families in funeral homes. Quahliero attributes that to a continued fear of large gatherings.
Even cemeteries have taken to requiring services that used to be held indoors now to be held at gravesites.
Visitors also rarely linger anymore during visitation hours. “They come in, pay their respects, and leave,” he says. “I don’t have 50, 75, 100 people just hanging around in a gathering area. They are in and out.”
In the pre-pandemic era, “they would come in at the beginning of visitation and wait till the end of the visitations,” he says. “Now you don’t see that.”
More people also attend visitation hours and funerals wearing masks or socially distancing themselves. And with the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus causing a surge in new COVID-19 cases, more and more people are, one again, taking precautions.
Families, he says, have come to understand this is the new way of doing this. At first, some were upset, but “the minute you say it’s a COVID regulation or church choice, they are okay with it. They are accepting of it.”
And Quahliero expects this to be the norm going forward.
“As the pandemic evolves, so will the way we offer funeral services. For now, these methods are how we can safely and effectively help our clients.”