A Funeral Director's Job Is To Bring People Together. Now Some Say It's To Keep Them Apart

Jul 16, 2020

Many Ohio businesses have reopened following the state's stay-at-home order this spring related to COVID-19. That includes funeral homes that are now allowing larger services at their facilities.  

Funeral homes were exempt from the stay-at-home order, but many followed health officials' advice and limited the sizes of memorial services to prevent the virus from spreading. Skip Phelps has been in the funeral industry for 15 years. He's the director of operations for Spring Grove Funeral Homes with five locations in Greater Cincinnati. Phelps says in March, Spring Grove limited attendance to 50 people inside its facilities, and allowed others to wait outside, and those people could rotate in and out.

"At that point, the public was pretty unsettled," Phelps said. "So, we didn't have very many situations where there was more than 50, because people were nervous."

By April, the policy changed to just private services with no more than 10 people who had to be family members. Those attending could not come and go. Phelps says that created difficult issues for families and funeral directors.

"And these were family members that maybe didn't see their loved one, the last two weeks or month or two months prior to death," Phelps said. "Therefore, they were struggling with not having been able to say goodbye, but also not being able to have the funeral that they would want to have in a normal situation."

By June 1, Spring Grove was back to 50 people and allowing others to wait outside. Phelps says they had hope to increase that this month, but held off because of the current status of the virus. 

Ken Cahall operates three funeral homes in Brown County, about an hour east of Cincinnati. WVXU interviewed him in March for a similar story. Like Spring Grove, the Cahall Funeral Homes were also conducting services by invitation only and limiting attendance to 10 people or less. Cahall agrees that was a difficult situation.

"I've spent a whole career trying to, when a death occurs, trying to get a family together to help through the grieving process and help them mend," Cahall said. "And now I'm spending my time trying to keep people apart, it seems like. During those days, there were many families who were served at that time, that their immediate families were larger than 10, but yet they had to make that hard decision who's going to be here and who can't be."

Cahall's facilities are in small towns, where community members generally know most of their neighbors. He says even though larger services are now allowed, crowds aren't necessarily showing up.

"There have been services that we have held were I thought I expected to see maybe some people that I knew that would be here for a particular service and they weren't," Cahall said.  "I think that's because people are still very cautious, and I can't blame them."

Cahall says they do what they can to encourage people to social distance, including properly spacing chairs.  And there are signs on the doors with warnings about being cautious.

"There's not near as many hugs or handshakes as there used to be, or other expressions of sympathy," Cahall said. "There are expressions of sympathy just in different ways than what they were before."

Cahall's funeral homes have been offering Facebook livestreams of services, and he says he's been surprised by the number of viewers. Phelps with Spring Grove agrees livestreaming may be a permanent change for the industry.

"I don't think people would have really thought the idea was that great unless it was a public servant or somebody where they were going to have thousands of people," Phelps said. "I think it will be the norm. I think people have realized that they can actually participate via online stream."

The Cahall and Spring Grove funeral homes are both still limiting families planning arrangements to two or three representatives. Although both can accommodate family members who want to participate remotely, or at Spring Grove in a separate room.    

Funeral homes also must closely monitor the supply of personal protective equipment, or PPE, for their employees who are working with the deceased. At times the masks, gloves, gowns and shoe covers were hard to find. Cahall says his staff is still very cautious and preserving PPE. However, Phelps says he's comfortable with his supply and has had no issues securing such equipment.