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COVID-19 Changes Funerals but Families Still Say Their Goodbyes

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Denise Williams, president of D.M. Williams Funeral Home, said families need correct information about funerals in the COVID-19 era. File photo

Going to a restaurant. Hitting the mall. Sitting in a coffee shop.

“All these activities will stop,” said Denise Williams. “But death will not, and it can’t wait.”

Only one part of life has refused to yield to COVID-19. In fact, the virus has made that part of life a starker reality.

Families coping with the passing of a loved one – be it from the virus or any cause – must navigate new rules around how they are able to say goodbye. Limits on visitors in hospitals make it hard if not impossible to be at the bedside. Social distancing means funerals are smaller, but they can proceed.

“For the families, there’s a lot of misinformation,” said Williams, president of D.M. Williams Funeral Home. “I’ve heard from families that they’ve been told they can’t view or it has to be cremation. It’s not true. Families most certainly are the point of contact, they are still in control.”

The situation in Rochester is different from that in New York City, where hundreds of people have died from COVID-19 in consecutive days. Those deaths are in addition to the number that a city of 8 million would experience, and the surge has caused a delay in disposition of remains.

Such was the concern expressed when Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren recently talked about the death of her uncle in New York City. Warren said her 93-year-old grandmother was distraught over how she would claim her son’s body.

“This has really hurt my grandmother,” Warren said.

Marika McMeans, president of the Rochester Genesee Valley Funeral Directors, said that as of mid-April, remains locally are being handled in a timely manner.

The county averages 22 deaths a day, according to McMeans. She said that number would have to quadruple in order to have a significant effect on the timing of burial or cremation. As of 5 p.m. April 10, the county had recorded 46 deaths related to COVID-19. The most reported in one day was seven, on April 6.

Should the county experience a surge from COVID-19 deaths that vastly increases the normal death rate, families seeking cremation could wait longer because the area has only four crematories.

Monroe County officials are preparing if that happens. On April 7, they announced a temporary morgue on a county site in Chili. Officials said they have two refrigerated trucks, each able to hold 64 individuals, and they have access to another truck. As of midday April 10, the trucks were unused.

McMeans said funeral directors are doing extra to care for families and making sure they understand the limits on the number of people who can be in a room at one time.

“It’s heartbreaking to tell a family that wasn’t able to say goodbye to their loved one that now they have to limit how many can come in,” she said. “We don’t want to do it, but for everyone’s safety we have to.”

Williams, who has been a funeral director for 30 years, has had to make some changes.

When she goes to a hospital to receive a body, she has her temperature checked. While families still drop off paperwork, conversations to plan for disposition are done by video chat. She said that so far, only two families went elsewhere because they could not meet with her staff in person.

Williams said she has heard people say that COVID-19 is preventing them from giving their loved one a proper burial, but she doesn’t know what they mean.

“Do you mean a church full of people,” she said. “I would like to understand … their thoughts on proper burial. …”

Families still can have a viewing, although it is held in shifts and households are given a 30- or 45-minute time slot. Most services have not been listed in the newspaper or on the home’s website, but families have broadcast them via Facebook.

Households have a repast on their own because of prohibitions against large gatherings. She said families are planning on more traditional memorials once the COVID-19 crisis is over.

“They understand and appreciate it, especially after having been told they couldn’t have anything,” Williams said.