Overburdened funeral directors look for ways to comfort mourners as coronavirus claims more lives

Orthodox Jewish men move a wooden casket from a hearse at a funeral home in Brooklyn, New York, on April 5, 2020.

Spencer Platt | Getty Images

The funeral industry is grappling with new challenges as the mortality rate increases across the nation from the coronavirus crisis.

Funeral directors’ jobs have changed overnight to accommodate the influx of bodies coming in and to provide services to grieving family members who face social-distancing demands. 

White House officials are predicting that 100,000 to 240,000 people in the United States will die from the coronavirus.

The challenges for funeral homes include the inability to provide a traditional services for the deceased. State laws in nearly every locality have placed limits on the number of people permitted to gather, and that includes funeral services. In most cases, the number of people is limited to five to 10 and includes only immediate family. 

“The hardest part for me is, I think, it’s sad that people can’t be with their loved ones, and they can’t share the grief,” said David Jacobson, founder of Chicago Jewish Funerals

Jacobson and other funeral directors have turned to offering their customers virtual services like shiva.com, a site created by Sympathy Brands for Jewish mourning. The company also operates eCondolence.com and other related websites.

“We’re trying to find any possible way to give people comfort that they’re not getting. Keep in mind, people are not being able to say goodbye to their loved ones in the hospital,” he said. 

Michael Schimmel, CEO of Sympathy Brands, said its new Viewneral service was created in response to COVID-19. Viewneral serves as a resource for funeral homes and mourners for end-of-life services.

Sites like shiva.com can accommodate up to 500 mourners virtually

Source: eCondolence

With the help of a funeral director, a family plans the Viewneral, invites those who will participate in the service, including clergy and those making eulogies, and allows up to 500 guests to virtually attend and communicate condolences, according to the company. 

“Viewneral will never replace a hug that a mourner needs from family and friends, but during this time of social distancing this will allow loved ones to virtually gather to memorialize the deceased and support the mourning family,” said Schimmel.

Many funeral homes like Jacobson’s are offering families the ability to hold a public memorial service at a later date free of charge.

“Funerals are such a communal event that brings everyone together in such a social setting that involves hugging, personal touch. To see people unable to hug each other really just changes the whole event. It pains me to see that during this difficult time,” said Bryant Hightower, president of the National Funeral Directors Association.

Another challenge the funeral industry is dealing right now is where to keep all the bodies.

“If the current death rate continues throughout the country, this could double the deaths we see in any given year,” said Hightower.

Refrigerator trucks are lined up behind NYU Langone Hospital on March 30, 2020 in New York City.

Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

According to the association, funeral homes can handle eight to 10 bodies at any given time, which means many are forced to come up with alternatives to store the bodies. In New York City, the surging death toll has led officials to set up makeshift morgues in anticipation of the rising body count. Crematories have also been working overtime. Hightower said they are now operating 24 hours per day, doubling their ability to respond, but backlogs remain a reality.

Another challenge is the shortage of personal protection equipment. It has yet to be determined how long the virus lasts in human remains, but funeral homes are being told by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it’s safe to embalm remains as long as they follow safety procedures, which includes wearing a full gown, face shield, mask and other PPE items. According to Hightower, most funeral homes have a 30-days supply.

“We have funeral homes across the country running critically low,” he said. Other supplies like caskets and embalming agents are all made in the U.S. and the supply remains strong, he said. 

The U.S. funeral industry has 19,136 funeral homes according to the association. Nearly 90% are owned by private families or individuals. The rest are public companies that include Service Corporation International (10%), Carriage Services and StoneMor Partners (1% each). 

The industry also faces worker challenges. Before the crisis, funeral directors and certified crematory operators were already in short supply, and the workforce is aging. The association said it has created a database seeking volunteers. In the first day, nearly 300 people stepped up. 

As the economy approaches a likely recession, people are losing their jobs and are in financial straits, a consequence that is being felt by funeral homes.  

Hightower said that even though funeral homes are busier than ever right, COVID-19 is not good for business. Mourners are spending less money and funeral homes have fewer options to offer. 

But now more than ever, it’s about more than just money. Many funeral homes like Chicago Jewish Home are offering charity and financial assistance to the indigent. 

“It’s never been about dollars and cents. It’s about the heart, but now we have to open up our heart,” said Jacobson. 

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