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The novel coronavirus, which has hit the U.S. like a storm that no one saw coming, has taken a toll on schools, restaurants, bars, the airline industry, retail and other businesses.
Now, it's affecting the funeral home industry.
Washington state officials this week banned funerals and memorial services until the end of the month, with that moratorium likely to be extended indefinitely. Burials are now "delivery only," meaning that only mortuary workers are allowed at the grave site.
"It will affect a lot of people," says mortician Russ Weeks, who owns, along with his brother, eight funeral homes, four cemeteries and three crematories in the Seattle area.
Washington state has been the hardest hit in the U.S. so far: nearly 1,400 COVID-19 cases and 74 deaths. New York is second with 39 deaths, followed by California with 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented challenges for funeral homes.
John Wenig, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and owner of several funeral homes in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., says while those who deal with the dead have been trained to take universal precautions, COVID-19 is unique.
"The coronavirus is more mental than it is actual in terms of how we care for that body," he says. "We're simply more aware. It's a sobering thing for everyone."
In Wisconsin and many other states, officials have mandated how many people can gather in one space at a time. Last week it was 50; now it's 10, showing the unpredictability of the pandemic. That has forced Wenig and others to hold viewings and funeral services in shifts, ask mourners to stand six feet apart and implore priests and other clergy to be brief. Services that once spanned an hour or two are now over in mere minutes, Wenig says.
"We're encouraging brevity," he says. "It's not ideal, but it's the best we can offer to secure the safety and health of our community."
But for some communities that treat funerals as celebrations with singing, eulogizing and fellowshipping, a few minutes to say goodbye is less than ideal.
"We understand that grief needs closure," Wenig says. "Being deprived of that opportunity is a huge emotional blow."
The virus is also prompting funeral homes to rethink how they handle bodies. In Seattle, Weeks says his staff now "double bags" every body they pick up and puts surgical masks on the deceased to capture any air that might be expelled from the lungs. They also use face shields.
"It cuts down on the threat of infection," he says.
James Schwartz, general manager of the Cremation Society of Maryland and the MacNabb Funeral Home just outside of Baltimore, predicts a rise in cremations if the virus continues to spread and people are forced into isolation.
"I think we will see more people being cremated because they can't have the viewings, and the services and people want to mourn and continue forward with their lives," Schwartz says.
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