Families are having to improvise and scale back funeral services in the wake of the growing coronavirus outbreak.
Funeral director Thomas Stone, of Weaver Funeral Home in Woodbury, was overseeing a family memorial service for the passing of a loved one at the Woodbury Church of the Brethren Thursday. But it was a very different service from the ones he usually handles.
During the past week, as the national threat of the coronavirus spread rapidly, the traditional visitations and large funerals came to a halt. Restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in one location imposed by the government mean in most cases only immediate family can come to pay final farewell to loved ones.
It is a difficult situation for the families to deal with, but, “Unfortunately this is how we have to handle the situation for now for the good of the entire country,” Woodbury Church of the Brethren Pastor David Ulm said.
Ulm said only immediate family attends the memorial service, observing the personal space rule, with no funeral meal following the service.
“We have to comply with federal and state guidelines,” Ulm said.
Obituaries now advise that memorial services will be limited to immediate family only and that an additional service for friends will be held at a later date. Additional pews are put in to keep mourners separated and hand sanitizer is placed throughout the church. “We just cannot jeopardize anyone’s health at this point,” Ulm said.
In Bedford, Berkebile Funeral Home supervisor Aaron Berkebile said, “We’re keeping everything private.”
The situation has already changed since the crisis began, and may continue to do so, he observed.
“At the beginning, it was your choice,” he said. As fears mounted and the government imposed tighter restrictions, “The decision became a lot easier to make,” he said.
“We do what we have to do to protect the public,” he said, conceding that, “It’s a different type of system.”
Some people are opting for cremations and deferring the funeral service until a later date, and he said it is possible that will be a more popular option if the crisis continues. “If we have a full funeral, we kind of have to keep that process going,” he said.
Along with restricting the number of people attending the funerals, funeral directors are dealing with other concerns.
For one, Berkebile said, there are worries about the effect the situation will have on the availability of caskets and burial vaults. For the moment there is no problem, but if the supply of caskets dries up, “I don’t know what they’re going to do.
Berkebile also said the state is now requiring that all death certificates be filed electronically. The system has been in place for some time, and is broadly used in the eastern part of the state. But many funeral homes in our area have not used it and are not familiar with it. He said his business hasn’t routinely used it, but has been learning it for the past year and has been assisting other funeral homes in the area with navigating the site.
Worship affectedThe coronavirus concerns have forced churches to improvise other ceremonies as well.
Ulm’s church, for example, is not holding Sunday worship services or meetings of any type. Ulm has been recording some worship services and making them available to members. Visitation to the sick and shut-ins has been reduced to phone calls. The church has a wedding planned for April with no immediate plans to change that, but Ulm said that could be altered.
Pastor Eric Poteat, of the Koontz and Waterside Churches of the Brethren echoed many of those sentiments. All of his church services and pastoral visits have come to an end. He also talks with parishioners by phone.
This Sunday they will be streaming live with a church service for both of his congregations. Poteat had strong concerns about the coronavirus because many of his members are elderly. He also expressed concern as he stated, “People need emotional and social contact with others and this current situation may create difficulties with this.”
Poteat’s churches have no upcoming weddings planned, but finds their current situation makes it difficult for the church to make any plans.
The Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese is allowing funeral Masses and scheduled weddings and baptisms will continue to be celebrated at parishes, but attendance must be limited to immediate family members. Other activities such as Stations of the Cross, novenas, missions, and Communal Penance Services will not take place.
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