It has been 14 months. 14 months that seemed like four years. I still remember the day I first heard about COVID-19 on the news and sarcastically thought “Big deal.” A few cases at the time had been reported in the States but there was still no concern. Then suddenly masks were recommended and then the closures began and then mandated regulations on everything. This, of course, included funeral homes. Those first weeks of COVID-19 induced changes were bleak. I would track our county’s cases “Only three. That’s nothing,” I would say. Every day that number would jump exponentially. Then the deaths started. It was a couple of weeks before we handled our first case and it was evident that this was much more serious than we thought. We took all the proper precautions: N95 masks, Tyvek suits, double gloves, etc. just to simply take a body into our care. Something I’m sure most funeral directors have done in a suit and tie or pants and blouse many times. But the situation quickly, quickly changed.
Families, many of whom like me, were not fully aware of the gravity of the situation and were unhappy, disappointed, and confused. “I can’t have a funeral?” or “How can we only have 10 people? There are 27 just in our immediate family,” they would say. I’m sure everyone reading this that works in a funeral home can agree. It was physically and emotionally exhausting. Working skeleton crews to minimize exposure and staying at home if there wasn’t pertinent funeral business to attend to. In our firm, we had one embalmer volunteer to embalm COVID-19 bodies. That’s a huge weight on someone’s shoulders. She wanted to minimize exposure and risk to her colleagues and community. We treated every body as a potential case, as you should. We all learned about universal precautions in mortuary college but why does it take a pandemic for us to adhere to it? I’ve known embalmers and funeral directors in the past reticent to wear a gown or even gloves during embalming. In the age of COVID-19, that’s the equivalent to sticking your hand in a lion’s mouth.
Now here we are, over a year removed from those early, scary days. Everyone has settled into a “new normal.” Regulations in most states though are being relaxed, if not lifted altogether. Vaccines are being rolled out en masse. People are going out again, more and more places are opening, and we may just see a sense of normalcy reappear. But what about funeral service? Did changes implemented during the pandemic offer better solutions for people? Is the value of a traditional funeral still there? I experienced firsthand, families that said not having a funeral was an easier weight to bear, especially financially. A young lady told me “Why spend $15,000 for a funeral no one can attend, when I can just cremate mom and use that money for something else?” Her argument certainly holds water, and that’s her prerogative.
The same can be said for the opposite as well, however. Some people need a funeral for closure. Why? Well, that’s for a different blog altogether, but it’s ingrained in us that we need that finality and those traditions to grieve and move on. The pandemic brought on the advent of live streaming services, something that has been around for years, but was never paramount. Now it’s virtually mandatory that it be available. Will more people though start coming to funerals in person again now that limitations are easing? Possibly. But why leave the house when you can just watch the funeral from the comfort of your own home? I don’t personally think we’ll get to that robotic virtual future wholly, but there are certainly some that welcome it. The same goes for burial versus cremation — the eternal debate. While cremation is definitely on the rise, how much of an impact did COVID-19 have on the cremation rate? And more importantly, did it change people’s minds going forward? I certainly have had many families choose cremation solely because of limitations on having a funeral. That may be their new normal going forward, and that’s fine. It’s our duty as funeral directors to embrace all changes and work with the ebb and flow of our communities, families, and society. Time will tell just how much of an impact COVID-19 had on our industry. As we move forward, we have to embrace the changes, and find new ways to make new traditions.