Death care facilities balance customer needs with social distancing

Death care facilities balance customer needs with social distancing
The grounds at Ivy Hill Cemetery on King Street. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

By Luke Anderson|

Losing a loved one is always difficult, but the coronavirus and resultant restrictions on gatherings have made the grieving process even more problematic.

Despite the limitations, funeral homes and cemeteries continue to provide essential and often overlooked services following a death. Since the pandemic began, they have sought a balance between supporting the emotional needs of families in mourning and meeting requirements for essential businesses to remain open that limit gathering size and require social distancing.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive to what we always try to do in death care, … bring people together to celebrate a life and to grieve as human beings,” Scott Sanderford, funeral director at Everly-Wheatley Funerals and Cremation, said.

Like other businesses deemed “essential” under Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) Executive Order 53, funeral homes throughout the city have committed to more frequent sanitizing and must restrict gatherings to 10 people or less. At Everly-Wheatley, telephone or virtual interviews are being offered to customers instead of meeting face-to-face following a death. If an in-person meeting is necessary, it is limited to two people.

At Reese Funeral Professionals, everyone entering their facility is required to wear a mask, Kevin Reese, the funeral home’s director, said. They provide masks to anyone who does not have one, and hand sanitizer is ready at the door.

Reese Funeral Professionals on North Patrick Street in Old Town. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

For the most part, customers have been cooperative and respectful of the guidelines. Yet some families who used Greene Funeral Home have tried to include more than 10 people at a time in their gatherings, said manager Nelson Greene Jr. Greene acknowledged that it is a difficult time for families but stressed the importance of following CDC guidelines.

During a press conference in March, Northam stated that businesses violating the 10 people or less mandate can be charged with a misdemeanor and possibly lose their operating license.

Some immediate families of the deceased elect to have ceremonies recorded or live streamed for extended family and friends who cannot be present. Others are opting to hold a memorial service at a later date, when larger groups may be able to congregate, rather than a funeral with restricted attendees now. Reese has noticed an increase in cremations during the pandemic, but that does not seem to be a trend with every funeral home.

“Our percentages of families that we serve that are choosing cremation have actually remained pretty consistent,” Sanderford said. “I wouldn’t say there’s been an increase in the cremation rate. It’s been fairly consistent, but there has been a bit of misinformation that it’s required if the death was related to COVID-19.”

Greene also noted several families he had met who were under the impression that cremation was their only option because their loved one died of COVID-19. Whether this information is coming from hospitals or long-term care providers or someone else, both Greene and Sanderford said this information is inaccurate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says people who have died due to COVID-19 can be buried or cremated, but warns precautions are recommended.

“Though we are still learning more about how COVID-19 spreads, it may be possible that you could get COVID-19 by touching the body of a deceased person who had confirmed or suspected COVID-19 prior to the body being prepared for viewing,” according to the CDC website.

When it comes to handling the body of a person who died of COVID-19, the CDC recommends that embalmers, cremators and anyone else handling the body before preparation wear personal protective equipment, including masks or face shields, disposable gloves, goggles and waterproof isolation gowns.

“We use full PPE when we’re doing transfers of a decedent into our care, whether it be at the hospital or a long-term care facility, and in terms of preparation, we’re just being extremely mindful and using the necessary protective equipment,” said Sanderford.

Greene, who has prepared several bodies of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19, was diagnosed with the virus himself. He stayed home for a week believing that he had a severe case of pneumonia. Greene said his regular physician urged him to go to the hospital where he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and treated with continuous positive airway pressure, which is often used with sleep apnea patients.

“Unfortunately, I had a few aches and pains but not bad,” Greene said. “I had some trouble with breathing, but between the antibiotics and the other stuff they gave me, that eased up in about four days.”

After eight days in the hospital, Greene was sent home and completed his recovery during a 14-day quarantine. It is difficult to know where or how he contracted the virus.

Like funeral homes, cemeteries are taking precautions and complying with social distancing guidelines. They too are also facing unique challenges.

Photo/Luke Anderson

At Ivy Hill Cemetery along King Street, staff are asking customers not to enter their offices if possible, General manager Lucy Goddin said. Unless there is inclement weather, they ask customers looking to buy burial space to call the office when they arrive.

A staff member will stay on the phone and, in a separate vehicle, lead customers on a drive-through tour of the cemetery. If customers see an area they are interested in, the parties exit their vehicles and discuss the space further while maintaining a distance of six feet or more. If paperwork is involved, staff wipe down all pens and other supplies before and after use.

Some families are skipping the ceremony inside a funeral home or church and are opting for a graveside service only.

“For us, because we’re outside and there’s fresh air, it hasn’t been quite as detrimental to our business or to people’s grieving process,” Goddin said.

In certain cases, Ivy Hill has allowed slightly more than 10 attendees within reason and with great caution, she added. Households usually ride together to the burial, and staff encourage them to keep a safe distance from others outside of their household. In many cases, attendees stay in their cars, roll down their windows to listen to the officiant and, if necessary, approach the casket one at a time.

Staff are present at every burial. They wear masks, keep their distance and sani- tize any tents or chairs used during the service. Instead of having pallbearers carry the casket, they arrange for it to be in position before the family arrives to limit the spread of germs by touching the casket’s handles.

Since the stay-at-home order was issued, the number of people walking or exercising in the cemetery has increased, said Goddin. She doesn’t mind the cemetery being used by neighbors or locals as long as they are respectful. Yet some cemeteries have been overrun with people looking for a place to be outside.

Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium has enjoyed an open-gate policy for years and welcomed exercise groups and even a local dog-walking group. However, the cemetery closed its gates a few weeks ago due to overcrowding and disregard for social distancing.

The historic seven-acre cemetery is part of a network of cemeteries on the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. It stayed open for the first four weeks after the stay-at-home order was issued, but after the city shut down fenced-in parks, people were looking for a place to be outside. Word got out that the Presbyterian Cemetery was open to dogs and the grounds were flooded with bicyclists and foot traffic.

Presbyterian Cemetery Superintendent David Heiby was stunned to see cars from Virginia, Maryland and D.C. parked at the cemetery complex. On weekends, the cemetery attracted close to 125 people and 50 to 60 dogs throughout the day, he said. He even witnessed a person bathing in one of the cemetery’s spigots.

When he asked people to socially distance, he was met with hostility.

“The behavior that was exhibited was reprehensible,” Heiby said. “I had people yelling at me, threatening to arrest me while I was in my cemetery for harassing them.”

“My first responsibility is to maintain the assets of the cemetery and protect the gravesites,” he added. “So I thought it was best to lock things down and rethink my process and then realize that moving forward, we’re going to have to make some changes.”

Now families who wish to visit their loved ones buried in the cemetery must contact Heiby for a scheduled visit. Heiby opens the gates for a few hours on holidays and during weekends and is working on a plan for reopening the cemetery full-time to the families and groups of exercisers and dog-walkers who enjoyed the cemetery before the pandemic.

On May 4, Northam announced plans to phase in a gradual reopening of Virginia beginning May 15; however, localities in Northern Virginia, including Alexandria, will not begin reopening until May 28 at the earliest.

Although that announcement may have disappointed families whose grieving process is in limbo, funeral home directors and cemetery managers are hopeful that in a few weeks they can provide more normal and adequate closure for those families.

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