COVID-19 fears are changing the way we mourn
By Samantha Lyles
Precautions against spreading COVID-19 have caused many disruptions to daily life. National safety guidelines advise against non-essential travel and gatherings of more than 10 people, and President Donald Trump recently said those “social distancing” requirements will be in effect through April 30.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster has banned gatherings of more three people. These limits have already caused suspension of on-campus schooling, in-house dining, and on-site worship services. But what happens if a loved one or colleague dies during this voluntary lockdown period? How can a family or community safely mourn the deceased and not put each other at risk?
At a typical Southern funeral, there are two gatherings: a formal visitation service where the bereaved family receives friends at the funeral home for a couple of hours, and an informal gathering at the home of the deceased where people drop off food, pay their respects, and reminisce in a casual setting. For the time being, both of those functions have been curtailed in the interest of slowing the spread of COVID-10.
“We have not done visitations at the funeral home simply because it’s against the law at this particular time, and we’re recommended that folks not go to the home of the family… but we’ve got a lot of ways we can do things where we can keep people separated,” says Darlington County Coroner Todd Hardee, who also serves as a funeral director at his Kistler-Hardee Funeral Home. “At Kistler, we have an outdoor chapel. We’re the only funeral home in the state that has an outdoor chapel, so we’ve made that available to the families that we serve.”
Additionally, Hardee says that during funeral planning sessions, only one or two family members can sit in with the funeral director. He recommends graveside services where people have the space to stand apart from one another. Hardee believes that by exercising caution, funeral services can be conducted while obeying McMaster’s orders limiting groupings to three people, stationed at least six feet apart.
“We also have the capability to transmit our funeral services over the FM airwaves, so people can actually come to the funeral, sit in their cars, and listen to the service and witness it at the same time,” Hardee says.
With these limitations in place, the difficult process of mourning our dead takes on an added layer of complexity, but the last thing we need in times of emotional distress is exposure to a potentially deadly illness. So while it’s tempting to gather in groups and people can actually come to the funeral, sit in their cars, and listen to the service and witness it at the same time,” Hardee says.
With these limitations in place, the difficult process of mourning our dead takes on an added layer of complexity, but the last thing we need in times of emotional distress is exposure to a potentially deadly illness. So while it’s tempting to gather in groups and share the burden of grief, our greater concern should be keeping each other safe.
“We are all on the same sheet of music. Everybody wants this virus to go away, so we all want to do what’s recommended to make sure that’s done,” says Hardee. “In our funeral home, we’ve decided that the best way to do that is to keep people separated.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.org) has provided the following information on COVID-19 and funerals:
Am I at risk if I go to a funeral or visitation service for someone who died of COVID-19?
There is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19.
Am I at risk if I touch someone who died of COVID-19 after they have passed away?
COVID-19 is a new disease and we are still learning how it spreads. The virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to mainly spread from close contact (i.e., within about 6 feet) with a person who sick with COVID-19.
The virus likely spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory infections spread.
These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. This type of spread is not a concern after death.
It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
People should consider not touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19. Older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions are at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness.
There may be less of a chance of the virus spreading from certain types of touching, such as holding the hand or hugging after the body has been prepared for viewing. Other activities, such as kissing, washing and shrouding should be avoided before, during, and after the body has been prepared, if possible.
If washing the body or shrouding are important religious or cultural practices, families are encouraged to work with their religious leaders and funeral home staff on how to reduce their exposure.
At a minimum, people conducting these activities should wear disposable gloves. If splashing of fluids is expected, additional personal protective equipment may be required (such as disposable gown, face shield or goggles and face mask).
Cleaning should be conducted in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time, etc.)