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From the archives 2020

Funeral directors in Pennsylvania brace for grief as coronavirus limits services, viewings

by Sara Simon of Spotlight PA |

For many funeral directors, the job now is to navigate grieving families through jolted norms.
Sarah Anne Hughes / Spotlight PA

This story was produced as part of a joint effort between Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group, PennLive, PA Post, and WITF to cover how Pennsylvania state government is responding to the coronavirus. Sign up for Spotlight PA’s newsletter.

HARRISBURG — In an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, funeral directors across Pennsylvania are being urged to postpone funerals, cancel public viewings, and limit attendance at services to 10.

Over the weekend, the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association encouraged funeral homes to consider limiting services to immediate family and moving public memorials to a later date.

That guidance was reaffirmed in a memo sent to members Monday in response to Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement of a statewide shutdown, restricting nonessential businesses.

The memo from the association answered the question that many funeral directors had been asking: yes, the removal of bodies “from anywhere other than hospitals” is considered essential, the association’s president, David Peake Jr., wrote.

But Peake advised members to make changes to their procedures.

“Hold bodies for [approximately] two weeks,” he wrote. “Do not have public viewings. Limit it to small family gatherings if you must have any … Have memorial services later, after this passes.”

Peake added: “There is no one that is going to tell you to shut your business. However, common sense dictates you should severely limit any interaction with other human beings.”

With proper safety precautions taken, there is currently no known risk in transporting, handling, embalming, or visiting the body of a person who has died from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the CDC does say that people should consider not touching the body of the deceased. If close contact is part of a religious or cultural practice, the CDC says, families should discuss precautions with the funeral home.

For many funeral directors, the job now is to navigate grieving families through jolted norms.

Bill Troutman, a funeral director at Warker-Troutman Funeral Home in Pottstown, said he usually sees between 50 and 100 guests for services. But two funerals this week were made private, Troutman said, and one will have only two guests — the deceased person’s sons.

Troutman’s staff is advising visitors against shaking hands and hugging — a heavy request, given the circumstances — and the funeral home is trying to be proactive. They’re not putting out a pen with a guestbook.

“We’re certainly taking more precautions,” he said, but “for us and for most funeral homes, life is going on.”

Dagny Neel Fitzpatrick, vice president of Jefferson Memorial Cemetery, Funeral Home and Crematory in the Pittsburgh suburbs, said the funeral home is stocked with hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, encouraging sick staff to stay home, and discouraging hugging and handshakes.

“Certainly we are a business that is essential,” Neel Fitzpatrick said. “We’re doing what we can to stay clean and healthy.”

She said the funeral home discussed the association’s advice on limiting attendance at services, but as of now, they don’t plan to follow it. She thinks people will begin to take precautions on their own, staying home and finding other ways to show support.

Bill Harris has been a licensed funeral director since the 1970s and is currently the president and owner of Harris Funeral Homes in Johnstown. Over the decades, Harris said, he has managed similar crises, caring for the bodies of people who suffered from infectious diseases — and their families.

For Harris, it’s personal.

When the 1918 flu pandemic hit Johnstown, his grandfather, a Teamster in his 20s, succumbed to the virus. And he wouldn’t be the only one.

“The flu was in the house,” Harris said. “My grandmother was so sick, so they couldn’t have a proper viewing and funeral.” The funeral director drove the hearse down the family’s road, and his grandmother watched from her window.

“That’s not the correct way to grieve,” Harris said.

A century later, he and his staff are being careful. They will likely start reducing attendance at services, he said, as per guidance from the state association.

But behind Harris’s caution, there’s clarity.

“I’m going to do the same thing I’ve always done — provide dignified care,” he said. “We’re going to serve our families.”

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