James Meunier, third generation owner of the Meunier-Elmwood Funeral Home in Burlington, compares his profession to a farmer’s.
“It’s a drop-and-run life like farming,” Meunier said. “Really nature calls the shots.”
And now, the coronavirus pandemic.
When there’s a death at a nursing home, Meunier is no longer allowed to go into the facility. Instead, staff bring the body to the door, where Meunier transfers it to his stretcher. Recently, the daughter of the deceased met him outside the nursing home when he went to pick up the body.
It would be the first time the daughter was able to see her mother since she became sick.
“We met them later at the funeral home and all sat around with masks,” Meunier said.
If death has no mercy, neither does the coronavirus.
An impossible situation
On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott loosened the rules a bit to allow gatherings of 10 people. Funeral services were already allowed to have that threshold of 10 people, but in reality, it has effectively been a ban.
As Randy Garner of Day Funeral Home in Randolph points out, the total of 10 people usually includes at least one person from the funeral home and perhaps a minister.
“The number gets really small, it’s not even 10,” Garner said. “It just makes it impossible. Most families themselves are larger than 10.”
Who are you going to tell not to come? And who are you going to put at risk to be there?
“Do we really want to put the grandson on a plane and have him get sick?” Garner said. “As a result most people say ‘No, I’m going to back off.’ They’re nervous about it. They don’t want to do it.”
Funerals have been postponed. But until when? No one knows, said Garner.
“I can’t even tell people three months from now you’re safe,” he said. “I don’t know that.”
Live-streaming shared memories
Chris Palermo owns the Perkins-Parker Funeral Home in Waterbury, and also serves as president of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association. He confirmed that the governor’s loosening of the rules around public gatherings didn’t change anything for funerals.
Palermo said he has seen some families think outside the box, given the new world created by the pandemic.
“I’ve had some families come to the cemetery to offer shared memories amongst themselves,” he said.
Another option is to live-stream a service or put it on a Facebook page for those who can’t attend.
“It’s a very imperfect process,” Palermo said. “We try to meet the needs of families and work within the regulations. This virus is out there and it’s extremely contagious.”
Monseigneur John McDermott of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington said Thursday priests are doing graveside committal services, limited to 10 family members, but no church services.
McDermott said he was uncertain when church services will be possible again.
“We’re trying to follow the guidance of the governor, who’s basing his decisions on the CDC and science,” McDermott said. “At this point we don’t have any definite time for public masses.”
Even when the church does resume masses, McDermott said, it’s likely they will be restricted in some way, either by the number of people allowed or the percentage of space in the building that can be occupied.
PPE for funeral home directors
The virulence of the novel coronavirus presents another challenge for funeral home directors. When a person dies, James Meunier said, her disease does not die with her.
“Years ago people thought if somebody had an illness, if they die it’s not a problem any more,” he said. “Some people still think it today. Not true. It’s even worse. It completely takes over and becomes quite dangerous there for a while.”
Which is why funeral home directors sometimes look like beekeepers garbed in protective personal equipment, said Carol Pritchard of Boucher & Pritchard Funeral Home in Burlington. And just like nurses and doctors, funeral home directors are finding it challenging to secure PPE.
“The supply line is improving, but most of our suppliers say it will be three weeks before we get everything we’re trying to order,” Pritchard said.
Pritchard is having very limited contact with grieving families, making all of the arrangements over the phone or through email.
“We had a call from Florida last week,” Pritchard said. “Nobody could fly up. It was us, the rabbi and the gravediggers, spread apart.”
The rabbi used Zoom so the family could participate in the service.
Pritchard is not allowing any visiting hours at her funeral home, which is the norm, she said.
“I know for a fact nobody in the state is doing any sort of public visiting hours,” Pritchard said. “A few of the funeral directors will allow one or two family members to come in.”
The issue, said Pritchard, is you might think visitors are not infected with the coronavirus, “but they could be.”
“We had over the weekend some graveside services outside,” she said. “You try to keep people apart, but my biggest thing is that they shouldn’t open things up very much until you’re willing to have church services. How do you tell somebody with 20 grandchildren you can’t come to your grandmother’s graveside service?”
At another graveside service people stayed in their cars and rolled the windows down. Pritchard is personally finding this new pandemic world difficult to fathom.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, we know everybody,” she said. “You see somebody you know, well your first instinct is to give them a hug or pat their arm. You wonder to yourself, is this going to change the face of the way people do funerals in this country forever?”
Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.
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