The coronavirus changes funerals and how families mourn their loved ones
Updated: Mar 29
The COVID-19 pandemic continues in the United States and around the world. That doesn’t mean that certain, personal business can be delayed indefinitely.
Funerals for the deceased, whether they died due to COVID-19 or not, continue despite the social distancing and lockdown guidelines the pandemic has caused. This has led to various approaches to seeing those who’ve passed off.
Chuck Bowman is the immediate past president of the National Funeral Directors Association and has been in the funeral business for most, if not all, his adult life. He currently lives in Liberal, Kansas where he operates a funeral home with his family.
Brad Zahn has run West Palm Beach’s Tillman Funeral Home & Crematory for 36 years. The home is privately owned and not connected to the NFDA. The two managers related in detail several solutions. Both placed limits on the number of people in the funeral parlor at a given time at 10 individuals.
“We're trying to achieve social distancing where we would normally allow numerous people to come into the funeral home,” Bowman said. The parlor is then cleaned and sterilized between services to make it safe for the next procession. There’s also an open-air, graveside alternative that allows more wiggle-room for attendees.
One new method is called “drive-by.”
“Some funeral homes have people drive by, stay in their car and view through a window the visitation of the body and pay their respects that way,” Bowman said.
Then, there’s the “FaceTime” approach, with services like Skype and Facebook being most commonly used. According to Bowman, this approach is working “very, very well,” since it allows those quarantined, out-of-state or physically incapable of traveling to view the procession safely.
“Quite frankly, this will be an outcome of the future, as we’ll do more and more of this broadcasting through Facebook and other media, not just in case the virus resurges but in general,” Bowman said.
“I still think it’s best to attend the funeral together in-person, be part of a group. I think that it gives comfort to one another. To honor the deceased and share the memories,” Bowman said.
One major reason why funerals can’t simply be delayed until the quarantine ends is due to the decaying nature of the cadavers. Even though bodies brought to funeral homes are refrigerated and embalmed quickly, they can stay preserved for up to six to eight weeks.
“That's not a good thing for the family because they're waiting for their service time and their grief to move forward,” Bowman said.
There have been few setbacks to the new approaches funeral homes are taking based on the experiences of Bowman and Zahn.
“The only drawbacks Tillman has had were that one or two families weren’t willing to abide by the regulations that we’re following from the CDC,” Zahn said.
Zahn reluctantly suggested to those families to schedule a service with another provider as he wants Tillman to maintain those regulations for the safety of both the funeral-goers and the staff.
The Tillman Funeral Home calculated the number of services performed throughout the pandemic months. In February, 63 families were served, 75 were served in March and 83 were served in April.
“We’re generally busy most of the time, but we haven't been overwhelmed because most people are not having services,” Zahn said. “They're generally cremated immediately, buried immediately or flown home to states north to be buried.”
The new or at least more recognized funeral methods have also had a positive effect on Bowman himself. A cousin of his from Utah recently died and FaceTime allowed him to mourn without leaving his home and duties in Liberal.
“I was kind of feeling outcast from the family because I couldn't attend,” Bowman said.
“So, they broadcast at their funeral home, and I managed to be a part of it. It was very personal, and it did help my personal grief.”
By Benjamin Wainer