Together, apart: How funerals and mourning have changed in Pa. during the COVID-19 pandemic

By: - April 2, 2020 6:30 am

Funeral directors in Pennsylvania may not be on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus, says East Pittsburgh funeral home owner Patrick Lanigan, but they’re definitely on the back lines, providing a crucial service to families in mourning.

But now, with the entire state of Pennsylvania under a stay-at-home order and rules limiting the number of people allowed at public gatherings, funeral services have become much smaller, and the grieving process has been interrupted. 

“They can’t have their extended family and friends, people that support them, students, teachers, they can’t come together and join and support and comfort, can’t have an embrace or a hug or a handshake,” Lanigan said of families who have lost a loved one in recent weeks. “For generations, we’ve commemorated death with ritual, with ceremony, and it’s important. We deal with the death by dealing with the dead.”

The lack of physical interaction has been hard for families and hard for the funeral home staff who don’t want to risk becoming infected themselves. 

“We had one family that had a few more than eight people come to a service, so we set them in different rooms to keep them separated,” Lanigan said. “It’s hard to say ‘Well, that grandchild can come but that one can’t.’”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance for funerals during the pandemic suggests family members should “avoid kissing, washing or shrouding” someone who has died from the coronavirus. “At a minimum, people conducting these activities should wear disposable gloves … additional personal protective equipment may be required, such as disposable gown, face shield or goggles and face mask,” the CDC says.

It’s not clear how long the coronavirus survives on a dead body, but the latest CDC guidance notes that it “spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” and this type of spread is not a concern after death. 

The latest on COVID-19 in Pa.: 76,436 confirmed cases in 67 counties

If a family member dies from the virus, anyone who spent time with the deceased should be practicing quarantine for two weeks to avoid spreading the virus unwittingly. 

That was the nightmare scenario that played out earlier this month in Spain’s wine country region, where several residents of Haro who went to a funeral in a nearby town and brought the virus back with them, infecting dozens of people.

The National Funeral Directors Association released new funeral guidelines April 1, which “strongly recommends that, until further notice, funerals be limited to no more than 10 of the decedent’s immediate family members,” exclusive of funeral home staff or a celebrant. The NFDA recommends graveside services whenever possible, and to set up seating arrangements that adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

Funeral homes– which fall under the category of “death care services” –are among the businesses that can continue physical operations even under Gov. Wolf’s order for non-life sustaining businesses to close during the outbreak. 

David Peake Jr., president of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, said he’s advised members to try to limit funeral gatherings to family.

Peake said while full-time funeral home staff are trained to handle hazardous situations, he’s concerned about the part-timers, usually older men, who assist with some of the funeral service tasks like holding doors open.

“These are people in the vulnerable age group,” he said.

No one wants to sit with a funeral director to make these decisions, but most are understanding that these are extraordinary times, he added.

“We try to make sure they know that their loved one is not going to be forgotten, because a lot of people put value in the number of people who come to a funeral,” he says. “We tell them we’re not trying to minimize the impact your loved one had in this world, we’re trying to help keep you safe and be part of the solution, of flattening the curve.”

The highest risk for a funeral home is when one of the staff retrieves a body for preparation, Lanigan says, especially if the person has died at home. Funeral directors are trained to deal with hazardous situations, but don’t typically wear personal protective equipment for most body retrievals. 

“We don’t usually come into someone’s home wearing a mask and gown, gloves and shoe covers. But now we are taking extra precautions,” he said.

Lanigan added there’s been growing concern about a potential shortage of such personal protective equipment for funeral home workers, and says there’s still no clear answer about whether embalming chemicials like formaldehyde actually kill the virus.

Peake added that funeral home directors across the commonwealth are scrambling to find enough protective equipment.

“Some made arrangements before the shortage, but am i going to tell you we have enough PPE for months? We don’t.”

He added that he has a full respirator mask he’s used in the past, but it’s not the most comforting thing for a grieving family member to look at.

“We are all teaming up to share resources, but masks are a desperate need, some are having a hard time getting gloves, and some are even seeing topical disinfectants we use being limited.”

Lanigan says he feels bad for families who have to plan– but often not attend– a funeral during the outbreak. “People have been very understanding, but we’ve had folks who were very religious who weren’t able to have a funeral Mass,” he says, adding that many plan to have larger memorial services for their deceased loved ones once the danger of coronavirus has passed.

“They want to go from commemorating to celebrating, but they can’t get there yet,” he says. “Their grief has been suspended.”

Correspondent Kim Lyons covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly