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Local funeral directors adjusting to realities of COVID-19

In a world where the coronavirus has touched all aspects of our lives, funerals are no exception.

"Picking up the phone to call a funeral home is never something someone wants to do. It's incredibly stressful and usually means you've just lost a loved one," said Mark Ennis, co-owner and funeral director at Thomas J. Neilan & Sons in New London and Niantic. "Now, with the coronavirus, it's become a doubly stressful phone call."

Ennis, speaking by phone Thursday, is specifically referring to guidelines established by the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association, in accordance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Connecticut Department of Public Health for containing the COVID-19 virus, that limit public gatherings — including funeral services or wakes — to no more than 10 people.

"That figure includes our personnel," Ennis said. "So, if you come from a large family and have a large network of friends, that's hard. And it's difficult to explain to families. We're dealing with that every day and it's not a pleasant experience, for families or for us as we try to do best for everyone."

Reid Burdick, a funeral director and partner at the Byles Memorial Homes in New London and Groton, said they're employing fewer staff at some funerals. "We reduce staff so more loved ones can attend, and the reality is that, right now, it's a time when people are going to have small, private services with the hopes that larger wakes or public memorial services will be held later on."

New realities

Burdick said the Byles Home was recently coordinating a large funeral service in Bourne, Mass., that had to be canceled. Another funeral, on Long Island, took place as scheduled, but attendees stayed in their cars while funeral personnel handled the casket. The family then came out, maintaining proper social distancing, and after they left, the cemetery workers came back and finished the burial.

"These are different reactions for a very different situation," Burdick said. "I know for a fact all the funeral homes in this area are staffed by caring, well-trained people. But this is something none of us have dealt with before."

New restrictions are just part of what funeral directors and funeral home employees are facing in this crisis. Like most businesses not deemed essential, funeral homes and crematoriums are closed to the public except by appointment or for services. Their doors are locked. And while some properly suggest funeral homes provide essential amenities and are 24/7 operations by nature, the logistics of their services are such that the closed-to-the-public dynamic is workable.

The safety and health of the mourners is of course important, and that concern certainly applies to funeral home employees as well.

"I can't honestly say we've ever discussed what might happen in a pandemic," Ennis said. "These diseases are all different. Back when the AIDS epidemic started, we weren't sure how you caught it or whether the embalming process or body removal put us at risk. Did it survive after a person's death?

"Now, we have no idea what COVID-19 does (in terms of funeral prep). We take universal precautions and of course use gloves and a pouch for body removal. As of (Thursday), we haven't had anyone die of coronavirus, so we don't know how it's going to work. It's standard to listen to the CDC and the Department of Health or the Connecticut Funeral Directors or national funeral directors' guidelines."

Burdick echoed Ennis's remarks about preparedness, also using the industry's "universal precautions" phrase for complete sanitary preparedness. "When I was in mortuary science school in 1969," Burdick said, "I interned at the New York City Morgue for a year. It wasn't the most joyous 12 months of my life, but on a daily basis we were exposed to biohazards that are just as deadly and contagious as coronavirus. Hepatitis, AIDS ... The point is, they train us how to deal with these situations and what precautions to take so you don't take it home with your or expose to customers."

Preserving traditions, looking ahead

In terms of funerals, churches, synagogues and mosques are also adapting to the new realities of the virus. Burdick said the funeral homes try their best to accommodate religious customs.

"With the exception of size, we can accommodate everyone's traditions. And this is important," he said. "If generations of a family believe something, we want to help them honor that and cover the tenets of the faith. And I don't think anyone will have to sacrifice family and cultural traditions other than the large wake or funeral."

As of Friday, New London had confirmed its first case of coronavirus, so it's reasonable to be prepared and expect an increase in patients and, ultimately, deaths from the disease. This means those in the funeral industry will continue to impart changes to deal with the requirements of the situations.

"It helps that people are becoming more accepting as they see news footage of New York City or Spain or Italy," Ennis said. "We've all acknowledged that this is a real situation, but now it's real HERE. And we want to help people in what are going to be some very tough and unprecedented times in our area."

"There will continue to be changes," Burdick said. "We haven't yet addressed issues like transportation. If someone local is in Florida or out of state and dies of the disease, it's going to be up to the individual states whether we can get that person back home. Or, while town hall is open now, what if it's forced to close? People might not be able to get a death certificate. The thing is, and I know I speak for all of us in the industry, we'll be creative and do whatever we can to accommodate people. We're in the business of providing comfort and helping provide closure. And we'll figure out ways to do that."

r.koster@theday.com

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