Churches which normally hold funeral services also adjust in face of attendance limitations, virus transmission concerns

By PAUL STURM, C-T Staff Writer
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — While the primary focus related to the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic justifiably has been on measures to treat it and/or mitigate its spread, the sad fact is that – for many already and more to come – death has been or will be the final outcome.
As with most aspects of our lives, customary post-mortem activities for the grieving, those in the medical service and funeral home professions, and religious/faith sector who are involved in ministry to the departed and the loved ones left behind are adjusting normal practices and procedures, as well as developing options for dealing with potential significant increases in demand.
Chillicothe, Livingston County, and the surrounding area understandably – by dint of geography and lesser population and population density – thus far have had only very-limited direct impact from COVID-19, in the way of persons contracting the disease.
However, given that deaths from other causes continue to occur in routine manner, representatives of Chillicothe’s two funeral home businesses confirm they have seen multiple impacts already, some the same as other businesses, schools, etc., are experiencing – personal-distancing and gathering-size-limit recommendations and expanded personal and facility sanitation measures – and some specific to their niche.
“We’re using more safety (precautions),” Katie Pomeroy, funeral director for Heritage Funeral Home of Chillicothe, confirms, “using ‘PPE’ (personal protective equipment), making sure that we wear gloves at all times inside of families’ houses” as a means of mutual health protection.
“When we’re notified, we’re supposed to be told what cases (causes of sickness/death) we’re getting involved in,” says Scott Lindley, co-owner with wife Deborah of Lindley Funeral Homes of Chillicothe, noting the Center for Disease Control has guidelines for infectious disease control, both pre-(death) and postmortem. “… We have protocols we use, in regard to those cases, based on what is told to us.
“The challenge for us a little bit here (in a rural area), since testing and those types of things (to identify those infected – whether displaying symptoms or asymptomatic) have not been going on, we have a little difficulty sometimes in knowing what cases we’re getting involved in, and we’ve established protocols for that.
“If somebody (did not test) positive for influenza A, B, and/or strep throat prior to death, then we’re kind of lumping these into some COVID-19 cases and we take precautions, based upon that. If they have (had) a positive (COVID-19) test (prior to death), we know exactly what we’re going to do.”
To accommodate the limited number of persons allowed to be together at any one time, both businesses are lengthening, as needed, time frames for visitations.
“Public viewings – they are allowed, but we have to keep a count at the door,” Pomeroy confirms. “We will extend visitation hours to allow people to come in … at a slower pace.”
Given the emotional impact grief can have, steps are being taken to limit possible exposure to tears and other moisture-involved discharges which could linger on surfaces or in the air, potentially providing a means of transmission of the virus.
“There will be extra (facial) tissues and hand sanitizer available for when people come in and sign the book and so forth,” states Pomeroy.
“… Throughout the day, (the facility is) going to be sanitized (with) Lysol (disinfectant), bleach, hand sanitizer. There are going to be face masks for anybody that is currently sick to hold their germs in. We don’t want to share any (illnesses).”
Echoes Lindley, whose business also has operations in other area communities, “When we have one group come in, we’re cleaning right behind them before the next group comes in. … We’re doing that in all our locations.”
Final services – whether at the funeral home or at graveside – are restricted to the 10-persons limit, including clergy and workers. However, Lindley says every reasonably-possible accommodation of a deceased’s family and loved ones is being and will be made, even if or when the number of deceased COVID-19 victims significantly.
“Our goal is to make sure that, when someone who is important to others no longer is with us during this crisis, there is a time for them to have whatever celebration (of the decedent’s life) we can do and for them to establish the grieving process and go through that and get it started for them, which is very meaningful,” he relates.
Referencing images of overwhelmed mortuaries/funeral homes in some hard-hit foreign countries, such as Italy, he declares, “The last thing I want is an (image) of trucks with human remains in them going away without people being able to properly say their goodbye.
“That’s not going to happen.”
Asked if more persons than usual have inquired about pre-need funeral arrangements, Pomeroy affirmed they have.
“We’ve seen quite an increase in requests for information about pre-need burial (plans), people trying to make sure they have everything all set up,” she shares. “Yes, people are kind of worried about that.”
While local coronavirus-related demand remained non-existent at the time of this story’s creation, the local funeral home spokespersons expressed confidence they were ready to handle any level which might eventuate, whether that involved handling embalmed bodies, the less-common non-embalming requests (which require refrigeration of the body until burial), or cremations.
“I don’t think we’ll have that big an abundance at one time,” muses Pomeroy.
“As long as they’re embalmed, we can store on-site. If they’re not embalming them – if they want more like a direct burial, they have to go into refrigeration. … There are several funeral homes with extra refrigeration that we could use. If it gets too bad, we’ll have to rent a portable refrigeration unit.
“ … Cremation isn’t a problem; I know several crematories.”
“Based on the numbers that I’ve been given on modeling (projections for mortality), we are not going to have issues that deal with storage and disposition, if we just follow the (risk-management guidelines),” predicts Lindley, who – as Livingston County coroner also – has been extensively involved in local and regional public-policy planning and procedures for the past couple of months.
As with front-line health-care personnel confronted with combatting the disease and its impact amid equipment and supplies challenges, he says, as a business owner/overseer, having and following procedures to keep such personnel and employees healthy and in a position to provide their specialized service to the general populace is critical.
“There’s no one else coming to do our job,” he reflects. “We’re separating our entire staff as much as possible – keeping them working from home when we can. We’ve been doing that for the last month or so – distancing ourselves, making sure we’re doing all the things that keep us ‘moving,’ so we’ll be ready and fully available to provide service to the entire community throughout this challenging and unprecedented time.”
For clergy interacting with the ill and religions which conduct funeral services at their church, common-sense measures for interaction with the sick (regardless of the type of illness) and family members of the sick and deceased are being used.
Catholic funeral Masses will be celebrated, but, according to guidelines propagated by the office of the Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joseph, with no more than 10 persons present, including the priest, altar servers, funeral home personnel, and mourners. That limit also extends to final interment services at the gravesite.
In addition, special mutually-protective measures have been integrated into the process of adminstering the Catholic Church’s “last rites” sacrament for the sick and those in danger of death, Fr. Ryan Koster, pastor of St. Columban Church in Chillicothe, relates.
Fr. Bill Fasel, priest-in-charge for Grace Episcopal Church in Chillicothe and several other regional Episcopalian congregations, confirms that in-church funerals for his churches have been temporarily suspended. Graveside religious ceremonies still are being conducted.