Weddings, vacations, graduations, few rituals and practices of life have been left untouched by COVID-19 and the measures implemented to slow its spread. That includes funerals.
Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order took effect Wednesday at 5 p.m. It calls for nonessential businesses and nonprofits to cease in-person operations, for people to remain indoors as much as possible, to avoid groups of 10 or more, and to keep a 6-foot distance from others when you do go out.
“We’re not able to hold funerals, to host and organize groups of people,” said Jon Boucher, owner of Guare and Sons Funeral Home in Montpelier.
“We had a service scheduled for today, then the governor came out with the latest restriction, so we asked (the family) if we could move it up one day, and we limited access to the funeral home to about three people,” he said.
He said the family understood the situation and he expects most others will as well going forward.
Some of a funeral home’s work can be done remotely and often is.
“The challenge is really getting signatures, and so up to this point we’ve been meeting people, but as it stands we probably won’t do a sit-down meeting, we’ll have to do it through electronic signatures or we can do it curbside,” Boucher said.
He said not everyone is technologically savvy, so he and his staff have discussed how to accommodate people.
“What we plan to offer folks, once this is over, if they want to come back and host a funeral we’ll certainly do that at a discounted rate in order to get them to come back, it’s really the best I can do,” he said.
Given the ground is frozen for several months out of the year, it’s common when a person dies in the winter for there to be a service shortly after, then an interment ceremony in a few months when the ground is thawed.
The biggest change is that now there can’t be a normal service, said Chris Palermo, owner of Perkins-Parker Funeral Home in Waterbury, and president of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association.
“I will tell you that, categorically, families have been very receptive to these extraordinary changes,” he said. “We are Vermonters, we are resourceful, we’re reasonable, people understand the severity of what we’re looking at and people that I’ve engaged with every day completely understand the circumstances and are looking forward to being able to bring some closure.”
Palermo said he’s been sending multiple emails per day for the past three weeks to the association’s members with advice on best practices and how to follow state guidelines and requirements.
“We are trying to be creative in serving families, getting them where they need to be, getting the folks they have lost where they need to go to the best of our abilities and following the guidelines put forth by the state,” he said.
He said for the most part funerals in Vermont have been put on hold. Some religions require last rites to be done on a certain timetable and in a certain way, which will be followed, but limits can be placed on how many people can attend.
“I think it’s incumbent on funeral service providers to have a conversation initially with families about what it is they would like to do and how we can help them accomplish that based on the restrictions we are seeing right now,” he said. “This is so widely publicized that people understand on their own account that life has changed and that we’re all in this together and that we’re all trying to accomplish a common cause, and we’ll get there.”
Even so, it interrupts the grieving process.
“There were families that hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to their loved one, and they can’t really complete the grieving process unless they have the opportunity to see them and say goodbye, and to greet their friends,” said Gary Clifford, co-owner of Clifford’s Funeral Home in Rutland City.
Clifford said he’s changed the way he does things to go along with the health guidelines and orders and is still trying to hold some kind of a service.
“But by delaying the funeral it delays the natural mourning and healing process, you can’t push a pause button on grief,” he said.
He recently used a tool he hadn’t before, Skype.
“It was very useful because the rest of the family was in Arizona, and they were all able to participate in prayers and photos of the loved one, so it’s definitely changing the way we’re doing things,” he said.
He said funeral homes typically keep a supply of personal protective equipment on hand such as gloves, masks and gowns.
“I’ve been promised these things from our suppliers, they’re just back-ordered. I trust that they’ll be here soon. Every day I look for them,” he said, adding that those in the Vermont Funeral Directors Association are networking to help each other keep stocked.
Palermo said he believes the state’s funeral directors are up to the task.
“Funeral directors are educated and continually trained through continuing education to face all kinds of different situations, including this, and we are all comfortable in what we do, we are good at what we do, and we will do everything we possibly can to make sure that families get where they need to be and those they’ve lost will get to where they need to go, but we just need to be patient, and we’ll come out of this, and we’ll move forward,” he said.