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Final Goodbyes: COVID-19's effect on funerals and how we honor the dead

From funerals services to the stress on funeral homes, what happens after a loved one passes away has gone through major changes since the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit: Getty Images

OVERTON, Texas — From the time COVID-19 escalated from an outbreak to a pandemic in the U.S., all aspects of life changed, including how people celebrate, mourn and remember a loved one who has passed away.

As the virus quickly spread from coast-to-coast, churches and funeral homes were forced to delay or cancel funeral services. Those funerals that did continue had families sitting far away from their grieving loved ones. Others were simply not allowed into the service due to limitations. 

Like any business, funeral homes across the country have had to adjust to the new reality with new protocols and mandates. Some of those changes are difficult, though necessary.

"We exercise universal precautions here in the funeral industry," said Jerred Lacy, Vice President and General Manager of Jerome D. Lacy Legacy Funeral Home in Overton. "That means that everybody is treated exactly the same whether they have a major disease or if they're just a regular person."

Legacy Funeral Home does both private funerals and public funerals through the government. Jerred Lacy said in his funeral home, there are more funerals than usual. There are multiple reasons for this.

"We've seen a 25 to 30% uptake in amount of cases we received in the private sector, as well as a 25 to 30% increase the cases we've seen in the public sector. And a lot of these cases are a direct result of people catching the coronavirus," Lacy said. "Now there were a few people who wanted to push back their services in the beginning to maybe try to wait out the coronavirus because they wanted more loved ones to be able to come attend the service in person, things like that."

Despite people's hopes early on, the pandemic continued to spread. While funerals have continued, they look much different than services before the virus.

"A lot of the changes that have come in the funeral industry have been mandated directly by the Texas Funeral Service Commission (TFSC)," Lacy said. "And one of those mandates being you can't have services larger than 10 people. Of course, the face masks were implemented, as well as a few other things to stop the spread of the disease."

According to the TFSC website, when the state began to reopen, some of the previous restrictions requiring limitations on the number of people at services, among others, were rescinded. In the latest TFSC COVID-19 recommendations dated June 16, 2020, funeral home directors are given the authority to implement any safety measure they deem necessary.

Lacy said, as of right now, they will continue to have restrictions in an effort to keep families and their staff safe, as well as prevent the further spread of the virus. Among the protocols Lacy has in place is requiring everyone involved in the funeral to wear a mask, requiring everyone to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer, limiting the number of people allowed to attend and finally social distancing.

"We encourage everybody, not be all very close to each other, give yourself some space," Lacy said. "We understand these are hard times everybody wants to show affection. But these are the things that we've got to do."

These regulations have hit families the hardest as many are not able to embrace during their time of mourning. However, Lacy said despite the regulations, families have been supportive and respectful of the changes. 

"Well, the thing is we haven't had any problems with any family saying, ‘We're going to do what we want to do. We're not going to follow those rules,’" Lacy explained. "Everybody respects the fact that we have to social distance. And so in terms of hugging, we do have a few family members, and they give each each other hug, but for the most part, everybody follows the social distancing protocols and recommendations."

One major issue for Legacy Funeral Home is the transportation of a person's remains. As a contractor, they sometimes have to facilitate the transportation of a body from one place to the other. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, that process is more complicated than ever.

"We've had a few cases that we had to ship a few loved ones over to New York," Lacy said. "Normal service, depending on what the family is asking for, it can be anywhere from three to seven days from the passing of their loved one. And now with the cases that we had to ship out to New York, those went about two to maybe three weeks at the most."

While funerals look much different than they did prior to the pandemic, there are other major changes concerning funeral homes. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the projected burial rate is 37%, down more than 7% in 2015. Meanwhile, the projected cremation rate is 56%, an increase by more than 8%. 

At Legacy Funeral Home, the shift from burial to cremation has been even more dramatic.

"Traditionally we do about 90% burials and 10% cremations, and now due to the COVID, this has completely flipped around," Lacy said. "We're going about 90% cremations, and with those cremations, those are cremations with funeral services or direct cremation. And we're going about 10% burials right now. And due to that, we've offered our services at a discount to the families, any family that is in need of our services due to COVID."

Lacy said he believes this trend will continue even after the pandemic is over.

"That's the trend that can continue on even after the pandemic has subsided because a lot of families made this it the new norm," Lacy said. "Like we've been wearing these face masks, this is kind of the new norm." 

The statistics back up Lacy's prediction. The NFDA projects by 2025, the burial rate will be 30% while the cremation rate will rise to 63%. 

However, there are statistics that paint a much more grim reality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NFDA said the pandemic is projected to cause an additional 200,000 deaths nationwide that was not originally planned at the beginning of the year. In addition to this, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, 50% of NFDA-member funeral homes reported 50% of their funerals were delayed. These factors help to cause an extra strain on the industry.

"And we've heard from quite a few more peers that the number of cases that they're receiving are so overwhelming, that they're actually having [to] turn down families and asked them to please contact another funeral home because they just can't care for their loved one properly as they should be able to," Lacy explained.

Not having a funeral home is a nightmare for scenario for many families. Lacy said they understand the stress that can cause. However, people must try to be patient and try to be understand on the strain on the business right now.

"We want to be able to do everything we can to help [families] say their final goodbyes," Lacy said. "Something that we would do is continue to communicate with the family. We would help facilitate new services that we could help or provide any recommendations or at least tell the family, ‘Hey, look, we know over here, you can go over here and get these services over here if this is what you desired, and please do this.’"

Despite the challenges, Lacy said funeral directors will continue to do their best both to serve the interests of families and to keep people safe during the pandemic. He said helping people during their time of loss is the reason why they work so hard to take special care of their clients.

"These are very trying times," Lacy said. "We're here for anybody that needs our services."

People looking for a funeral home for their loved one, or needing advice, may call Jerome D. Lacy Legacy Funeral Home at 903-258-9100.