Funeral directors cope with COVID-19 issues

BROOKVILLE – Gov. DeWine’s stay-at-home orders exempted funerals from the limits on gatherings, but several area funeral directors are imposing various limits.

They haven’t had to deal with COVID-19 viruses yet, but they aren’t concerned about handling victim’s bodies.

David Fellers of Gilbert-Fellers Funeral Home on Albert Road said, “Embalmers for years have been required to take universal precautions and assume everybody may carry a communicable disease, so this is no different.”

Nevertheless, they are taking precautions. The state association has issued guidelines limiting mourners to immediate family only, although Brian Barnes of Barnes Funeral Homes in Lewisburg and Eaton said, “We don’t police who you include as immediate family.”

Bill Kindred of Kindred Funeral Home in Englewood restricts mourners to 10 and has the chairs spread out. He’s being creative, often scheduling two or more viewings for large groups. Fellers said his chapel is large enough that he can spread out chairs and accommodate more, but, he said, “We can’t have any more of the visitations where half the town turns out.”

Barnes has each visitor use a different pen to sign the register and drop it in a container. After the service, the container with the pens is then fumigated.

They also limit the number of people who can meet with them to plan a service. Fellers says only three or four can come to plan a service. Barnes limits the face-to-face meeting to two.

Electronic meetings are also an option.

“In fact,” Kindred said, “we are capable of doing everything electronically, including the identification before a cremation.” (Ohio law requires a last identification before a body is cremated.)

He webcasts all the funerals as a matter of course, so people can participate that way, and had a service in which the clergyman was presiding remotely.

Barnes said he can livestream a service but hasn’t had a request to do so yet.

People entering nursing homes often prepay funeral expenses not only to make sure their wishes are carried out but so that the money isn’t included as an asset. These are precisely the people at highest risk.

Barnes said, “The regulations have been relaxed, but we are keeping a list of people to contact when it is safe.”

Kindred said he hasn’t seen an increase in people wanting to make arrangements in case they are victims of the virus, but several people have called to see if their plans are still valid.

He said, “For example, a Catholic Mass is very important to some people, and they call asking if it is still possible under the guidelines.” (It is.)

The funeral directors also have lists of people who want to schedule memorial services later, and some opt for graveside services where people can more easily social distance. But Fellers pointed out, “We still don’t want hundreds of people.”

They’ve reduced their staff to the minimum. Barnes said he often relies on “elderly gentlemen” to greet mourners, but he’s had to discontinue that practice. Fellers uses an answering service that can reach him at any time but is in the office only for services and unavoidable meetings with families. And all are cleaning and sanitizing even more frequently.

Barnes may be especially concerned, possibly because of the family’s stories of his great-grandfather, who started the family funeral business in 1920, just at the end of the flu pandemic.

“All of his six children were sick with it, and my great-uncle died. And my great-grandmother was pregnant.”

He has posted signs at the doors and on the Facebook page, asking people in certain categories to please consider not attending.

Most of the clients are cooperating, they say, although Fellers said he occasionally has to say, ‘No, I will not participate in that.’ Besides following directives, I need to protect myself and my family. The hardest task for me will be when someone refuses to abide by the restrictions, and I have to turn them down.”

Last Friday, at his daily COVID-19 update conference, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced some items concerning funeral directors.

DeWine said that the Ohio Department of Health is now directing physicians, funeral directors and local registrars to list COVID-19 on death certificates in all cases where tests confirm it as a cause of death, or it is assumed to be a cause or factor. ODH also directed local health departments to report probable cases of COVID-19 — instances where the patient has the symptoms but hasn’t been tested.

The DeWine administration said the changes are in response to new guidance from federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Probable cases and deaths attributed to COVID-19 will be reported separately so that apples-to-apples comparisons can be made, the governor said.

By Kay Dawson

Contributing writer

Funeral directors cope with COVID-19