CORONAVIRUS

Funeral plans change under COVID-19 restrictions

Funeral directors encourage use of livestreaming, family-only services to follow gathering limits

Lensing Funeral & Cremation Services in Iowa City, shown Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Gazette photo)
Lensing Funeral & Cremation Services in Iowa City, shown Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Gazette photo)

Grief shared is lessened, but crowd limits imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have made it harder for families to grieve loved ones who have died.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended no more than 50 people gather together, and when people do meet up, they are advised to stay six feet apart. Neither restriction is ideal for a funeral, where mourners typically show love and respect by turning out, shaking hands and giving hugs.

“People are so aware of this,” Michael Lensing, co-owner of Lensing Funeral & Cremation Service in Iowa City and Coralville. “Even if it normally would be a very large service, people are saying ‘let’s do something more private’ or ‘let’s do something at a later date’ or even streaming it on the computer.”

Murdoch Funeral Homes & Cremation Service, with branches in Cedar Rapids, Marion, Manchester, Center Point, Central City and Earlville, recorded video of a funeral Monday for the first time, testing the technology for people who may choose this option because of COVID-19, said funeral director Jeff Rosauer.

“We can do a livestream of the funeral or we record the funeral and post it on our website so people who can’t be here can watch it after the fact,” he said.

The National Funeral Directors Association and Iowa Funeral Directors Association have offered advice for funeral home staffs about extra precautions they should take when entering nursing homes and transporting human remains, as well as how to disinfect funeral homes for guests.

Most nursing homes and retirement communities in the Corridor are turning away visitors and requiring extra screening of staff, but at this point, funeral home staff still are allowed to enter when a resident dies, Lensing and Rosauer said.

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Lensing said he was required to sign in and have his temperature taken at one death call earlier this month.

“Hospitals have morgues, which are contained areas, but in nursing homes they are still having us go to the rooms,” Rosauer added. “We’ll certainly comply with whatever rules the nursing homes enact.”

Funeral directors also have been consulting with grief counselors, including Dr. Alan Wolfelt, an author, educator and grief counselor who is director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado. Wolfelt wrote an article this week advising funeral home directors to encourage families to not skip funerals altogether.

“Funerals are a rite of initiation,” Wolfelt said when reached by phone Tuesday. “As people attempt to not have ceremony, they inhibit their ability to turn grief into mourning. Mourning is a shared social response.”

Wolfelt suggests funeral home directors offer a small service now for immediate family followed by a larger funeral when COVID-19 restrictions are limited.

Families also may feel guilty seeking out support while the community is fighting a public health emergency, Wolfelt said.

“Encourage them to talk to other people impacted by their loved one’s death on the phone or via text,” he wrote. “Help them know how to access and use FaceTime or Skype-type apps so they can see facial expressions and approximate physical closeness. Invite them to consider writing old-fashioned letters, to share memories, express feelings, and offer condolences to each other.”

In some ways, the COVID-19 outbreak reminds Lensing of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when many people didn’t understand how the virus was transmitted.

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“There was a lot of paranoia,” he said. But taking sensible precautions against COVID-19 has allowed Lensing to stay calm and help his clients. “We want to make sure people are aware that for funeral homes, everything is not normal, but we still are here to serve people.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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