Funerals, burials being cancelled, postponed as gatherings are avoided
By Lee J. Kahrs and Christopher Ross
BRANDON/PITTSFORD — End-of-life celebrations are often an occasion for large gatherings, but during the coronavirus pandemic local funeral homes are adjusting their practices and look for new ways to continue providing the services their clients need.
On March 21 Gov. Phil Scott limited gatherings in Vermont to 10 people or fewer. Though funeral services are currently considered “essential” by the state, they must also adhere to the restrictions.
As of Tuesday, Rutland County had 31 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Statewide 575 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and at least 23 people have died from it.
Even if funeral and memorial services are counted an essential for now, residents of other states are having to contend with their own restrictions.
Chris Book owns Barnard Funeral Home in Pittsford, Aldous Funeral Homes in Rutland and Wallingford, Durfee’s in Fair Haven, and a crematorium in Poultney. He said he is seeing a lot of postponements and cancellations.
“Most everything is getting postponed,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of graveside services, and we’ll do immediate family under 10 in a church.”
Immediate family does not include aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews or cousins.
On March 30, Gov. Scott ordered that residents and non-residents traveling into Vermont “for anything other than an essential purpose” must immediately self-quarantine for 14 days. That severely affects the number of relatives who can travel for a funeral.
Book was asked if the “new normal” is affecting his bottom line.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “And there are a lot of people doing something on their own,” meaning planning their own Celebration of Life events at their homes at a later date.”
Book said the problem with postponements is that there are already burials planned the people who died over the winter. Funeral directors store the bodies in receiving vaults until spring when the ground thaws and burials can be held again.
“The problem is, we’re going to be coming into burial time,” Book said, “and all these services that are being postponed will happen at the same time.”
The funeral director also said he has altered the way he does business.
“I’m not using as much staff, and I’ meeting people very briefly or over the phone or using email,” he said.
But Book is certain that this crisis will end and his business will bounce back.
“It is what it is,” he said. “We are going to get through this.
On March 23 the Vermont Department of Health issued COVID-19 guidelines to the state’s nursing homes, long-term care facilities and hospice facilities, based on recommendations from the Vermont Funeral Directors Association.
Many of those guidelines are aimed at reducing or shortening in-person contact, as well as minimizing potential exposure among patients, facility staff and funeral home staff.
The Vermont Funeral Directors Association has been working to secure and distribute to its members items like N-95 masks and medical gowns. Such equipment helps protect not only funeral directors but also the institutions they’re visiting.
Gary Stanley owns and operates the Miller & Ketcham Funeral Homes in Brandon and in Fair Haven. He, too, is doing more graveside committal ceremonies since the pandemic restrictions hit.
“Everyone is talking about a simple graveside service,” Stanley said. “I just did one and there were five of us, three of us were staff. I have one this afternoon and there will be nine of us, total.”
Stanley said he and his staff dress in full medical Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE when handling the dead.
“These are scary times and we are on the front lines, just like medical workers,” he said. “We use full PPE when removing people from homes, hospitals, and especially senior living homes. “We wear a smock, gloves, masks and face shields.”
Stanley is in good shape, equipment-wise. He just received another case of N-95 masks from the Vermont Funeral Directors Association, and he placed a well-timed order previously.
“I had ordered a supply of stuff in January, so we’re OK,” he said. “We’ve actually shared with others who are running low.”
Because churches are closed to general services, Stanley said he is performing many of the graveside services himself.
But his faith leads the funeral director to believe that the pandemic will have a much larger, positive effect on American religion in general.
“Most people don’t have a church connection anymore because people have gotten away from it,” he said. “I think it will be good when this is over. People will reconnect with their faith. We are a Christian nation and I believe people will go back to church when that time comes.”
Stanley is a Vietnam Veteran, and has seen a lot, but his optimism is unwavering.
“It will get better,” he said. “There is always a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been through AIDS, the Zika virus, H1N1, the Swine flu, the Bird flu… this is a learning experience for everyone. There’s always a silver lining. Good things will come out of this and bring our nation closer together. It’s already happening. People are looking out for each other.”
Christopher Ross contributed to this report.