COVID-19 forcing funeral homes, families to make tough decisions

By Updated: March 20, 2020 3:48 PM CT | Published: March 20, 2020 3:47 PM CT

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

Memphis funeral homes are adapting grieving rituals to adhere to coronavirus social-distancing guidelines, in some cases limiting the number of people to a room.

The extra precautions were put in place this week after the White House advised all Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people until March 31.

Social distancing may be hardest for those who lose a loved one. At a time when hugging, holding hands and being present with comforters is most important to mourners, health officials are advising to curtail the behaviors.


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While many funerals are taking place without much disruption in Memphis, officials are staggering visitors at visitations and wakes. In some cases, mourners are being spaced out in chapels at funeral homes. And fewer people are attending the gatherings, though still several remain determined to memorialize loved ones.

“We’ve taken it a step further,” Lee Murphy, spokesman for Memphis Funeral Home, said Tuesday. “We’re limiting gatherings to 10 (per room in visitation rooms). It’s not what we’re accustomed to, and certainly not what mourners are accustomed to. But families, for the most part, are as concerned as we are. It’s on their minds.”

The National Funeral Directors Association held a question-and-answer session with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention representatives Monday. That 38-minute event was recorded and is available at www.nfda.org.


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Officials recommended some of the same measures Memphis funeral directors are taking: live-streaming funeral services, limiting gatherings to select family members, and encouraging at-risk people, such as the elderly, to stay home.

In Memphis, funeral homes are adapting procedures as recommendations evolve.

Dignity Memorial’s five Memphis-area facilities, which includes Memphis Funeral Home, Collierville Funeral Home and Family Funeral Care on Summer Avenue, were already practicing social distancing. The previous guideline was groups of 50 or fewer. That figure was an easier reach.

Despite the social-distancing guidelines, funeral homes want their customers to be able to carry out grieving rituals.

“We’re going to do everything we can so that anyone who wants to be a part in memorializing a loved one has that opportunity,” Murphy said. “We’re doing everything we can do.”

Some funeral homes, such as Memorial Park Funeral Home, are offering live-streaming services for free. Memorial Park also is taking more information via telephone, reducing the time of in-person arrangements conferences from two to three hours to an hour or less.

“Each person can become a funeral celebrant and attempt to construct rituals at the family level that acknowledge the importance of that person.”

Robert Neimeyer, University of Memphis psychology professor

Employees of the funeral home, part of a 150-plus-acre cemetery where many prominent Memphians have been laid, also bathe door knobs with disinfectant and clean bathrooms and other spots on the hour, said Joseph Lowery, general manager of Memorial Park Funeral Home on Poplar Avenue.

No concerned mourners have postponed services, but one family opted not to hold a visitation. They did not want potential exposure to themselves nor to their guests.

“In my 20 years, I’ve never faced anything like this,” Lowery said, “but we feel like we’re prepared.”

Should families eventually not be able to attend funerals at all, the emotional toll would be significant, Lowery said.

“No closure – not being able to say our goodbyes … that would be tough. It would really affect our culture.”

Robert Neimeyer, a University of Memphis psychology professor and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, said people tend to substitute “viewing for doing,” but participatory mourning rituals are more constructive and helpful.

If mourners cannot be a part of a funeral while adhering to social distancing, he recommends people create their own, active way to celebrate and grieve a life.

“Each person can become a funeral celebrant and attempt to construct rituals at the family level that acknowledge the importance of that person,” he said.

Mourners may light a candle for several days, gather in a circle and share memories, or pray or meditate. Such active behaviors help mitigate the sense of fear, helplessness and guilt, Neimeyer said.

Williams Funeral Home, a family-owned business on Knight Arnold Road, has asked customers who expect a large showing at a funeral to select a larger facility to space everyone out. But that’s not much of an issue.

“Right now, a lot of people aren’t going to any social gatherings at all,” said funeral director Rodney Williams. “Even some of the children of the people are not coming.”

For visitations, Williams has extended visiting hours “so there won’t be so many people in the funeral home at one time.”

Having recently studied the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s, Williams understands the potential impact emotionally on mourners who cannot go to funerals. The needs of the many, however, outweigh the needs of the few right now.

“I’m sure it will impact grief,” Williams said, “but it’s for the greater good. Memphis has done a great job of keeping the virus at bay - at least that we can see.”

COVID-19 in Memphis & Shelby County: March

Topics

COVID-19 coronavirus funeral services social distancing University of Memphis

Toni Lepeska

Toni Lepeska is a freelance reporter for The Daily Memphian.


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