Burying the dead now harder for funeral homes under coronavirus restrictions

Unsplash/Rhodi Lopez
Unsplash/Rhodi Lopez

NEW YORK — Frantic funeral homes across the country say they are struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing new regulations on public gatherings and how they impact the burying of the dead in the age of the new coronavirus. Some say they are just praying that the government doesn’t ask them to shut down altogether.

“We are forced to limit only 20 people into the funeral home and no more. Churches are canceling the masses and we’re having a tough time,” Andrew Williams of Williams Funeral Home in the Bronx told The Christian Post Wednesday. “I hope they don’t shut us down.”

Updated guidance released by the White House on March 16 suggests no public gatherings larger than 10 people for the next 15 days while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

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In a Facebook event on March 16, the CDC suggested that funeral homes limit attendance to select family and livestream funeral services for those who cannot attend.

Services, they added, could also be recorded and the video shared with whomever the family deems appropriate. They further advised that those who are ill and are at-risk such as the elderly and immune-compromised be encouraged to stay away from funerals. Healthy habits such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and covering cough and sneezes were also recommended.

Several other funeral home workers contacted by CP, who asked not to be identified in this story, revealed families were having a tough time with the new rules which have been changing rapidly over a short period.

“As of now, all of us are figuring it out,” another New York worker said.

“Every day, every 12 hours, a new mandate comes down,” Funeral Director Matt Hollebeek told Fox 17. “Listening to families, and what they want us to do, and making arrangements based on that and then 12 hours later, it’s all unraveled.”

As of Thursday, more than 11,000 cases of the new coronavirus have been diagnosed in the U.S.  and more than 170 have died as authorities increasingly lean on social distancing strategies and shutdowns to limit the spread of the pandemic that has infected more than 200,000 and killed more than 8,000 globally.

“County clerks are shutting down, doctors aren’t available. I still have the function of my job to do, which is bury or cremate the people who have died,” Hollebeek told Fox 17.

He said funeral directors are worried that if their workers get sick, they may eventually not even be able to do their job.

At the recent funeral of World War II veteran John Gosciewski, a retired funeral director who ran the Gosciewski Funeral Home in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for more than 50 years, said grieving was muted by the coronavirus, according to The Citizen’s Voice.

“It’s your relatives and family. You can’t touch and shake hands or hug,” Gosciewski’s daughter, Paula Tracy, told the publication. “Your relatives have to be treated as strangers and some of these people you haven’t seen in years. There was distance kept. It was absolutely hands off.”

Karel Zubris, another of Gosciewski’s daughters, said those who attended his funeral had to put up a “false wall” during their farewell.

“We did the elbow thing, air hugs. It was hard,” Zubris said.

Gosciewski’s funeral was reported as one of the last funeral masses held at St. Peter and Paul Church in Plains Township before the Diocese of Scranton switched to the new rules limiting funerals to only immediate family members.

The owners of Harold C. Snowdon Funeral Homes of in Pennsylvania also announced that they halted public viewings and services and were limiting attendance to select family members.

They suggested that people could also delay the services to a future date to possibly get more room to mourn under relaxed rules.

“Other funeral homes may be able to meet your needs if you require more from us than we are now comfortable doing,” the Snowdon family noted. “That is your decision and we do not judge you for it. This is an awful situation. We are trying to do our part to limit the families that will be affected by this current crisis.”

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