Not long ago, restrictions on social gatherings weren’t commonplace like they are today, with COVID-19 dominating headlines.

Today, funeral directors say they’re dealing with an ever-changing set of rules surrounding end-of-life procedures.

The Minnesota Department of Health said people can go to funerals, but limits attendees, who must stand six feet apart, to 10.

The ruling came after a brief period suspending all funeral services.

KEEPING DISTANCE

Mortuary service workers are considered essential staff, so they’re allowed to continue jobs like removing deceased people from where they died, prepare bodies, and make other arrangements like cremation.

“Ultimately, funeral homes and providers must comply with these guidelines in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, while meeting the needs of grieving families,” a statement from the MDH read.

Directors can still meet in-person with families if absolutely necessary, but virtual meetings and electronic signatures are preferred. They can also schedule private viewings with social distancing rules in place, but it’s a big change from what families and directors alike are used to.

“We are on a lockdown. We’re handcuffed right now,” said Mark Arnold, director at David Lee Funeral Home in Wayzata. “That really puts limits on us at that one point in our time in our careers that we have to tell families, ‘No.’”

‘COMPLICATED, COMPOUND GRIEF’

Arnold said that two-letter word has consequences for mourning families, since meeting in person is a cornerstone of grieving for many.

“Funerals are all about sharing emotions and sharing someone’s life,” Arnold said. “A lot of that is involved in personal touch, hugging together (and) crying.”

Even delaying a service can be detrimental, he said.

“We always want to capture that moment close to the time of death so you can get that closure,” Arnold said. “Families will have that complicated, compound grief.”

When friends and family put those emotions on hold for a few months or longer, Arnold said it can lead to depression or other life disturbances. It’s especially difficult when someone passes unexpectedly.

“Every part of your body wants to be able to be there with that person that’s passed away suddenly and find some way to connect with someone and also let them go,” he said. “How it affects each family is going to be a little different.”

Though it’s far from ideal, local directors say most people understand.

Chad Willard with Huber Funeral Homes in Eden Prairie said the news hit hard and quickly, but families are cooperative with the new rules.

Willard said one family he’s working with has a memorial service scheduled for the end of June.

“They have already probably accepted that that’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s easy for me to explain, because I can say, ‘Well, it’s nothing that the funeral home is doing; nothing that the church is doing. It’s just what we’re having to follow in the times that we’re dealing with.”

Arnold said limiting services to 10 people might not be an issue for some families. But for larger families or social groups who want to celebrate someone’s life, they’ll have to wait to all convene together.

Technology is helping meet some of those group needs, by way of webcasting services or arranging funerals for a later date.

ON HIGH ALERT

Directors are taking extra precautions to keep everyone safe.

Arnold said mortuary service workers are trained to protect everyone around them, living or deceased. This comes in the form of wearing masks, gloves and gowns.

Neither David Lee or Huber funeral homes worked with a COVID-related death as of their interviews, but Arnold said it’s inevitable. He and other directors say they know how to safely prepare and view an infected body.

Willard said the biggest risk comes from removing bodies from where they died and during the embalming process, but they’re ready.

“Funeral homes are all trained to use the catch word: Universal precautions,” Willard said. “You treat every body like it’s an infectious body.”

Willard said staff use personal protective equipment, or PPE, often — even before COVID-19.

“We had plenty of respiratory masks and face shields to continue business,” he said.

PLANNING

Willard said his funeral home hasn’t had trouble finding priests to perform burial services, despite churches, mosques, synagogues and temples closing across the state.

People are pushing services out months, typically on Fridays and Saturdays. Though it’s harder on funeral staff to juggle the schedule, Willard said it’s what directors are there for.

Families are shifting to cremations instead of burials during this time, he said.

“The trend right now is ‘cremate and wait’ until we get the all-clear to do some of these memorial services,” Willard said.

At the end of the day, funeral homes aren’t exempt from the changes COVID-19 brought to the area.

“This will definitely change us as people. It will change the funeral industry. It will change how we view funerals,” Arnold said. “I hope that it will help us value life and people around us and give us an opportunity to enjoy each other, enjoy family. Then we can possibly find some silver lining in all this in the future.”

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