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Coronavirus pandemic changing the way funeral home directors hold funerals

Funeral homes are implementing social distancing for grieving families.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — We have heard how distressing and dangerous the pandemic can be for health workers. But if their patients die, there are the funeral directors who may also be somewhat at risk.

Here's another way to put the impact of COVID-19 in perspective. Executive Director Mike Lanotte of the New York State Funeral Directors Association says on average there are 425 deaths each month in the state. Last Saturday and Sunday there were 475 deaths. Some of those deaths last weekend were from other causes, but many were from the coronavirus — especially in New York City.

Funeral home directors in Western New York have dealt with other contagious diseases from bodies before, but with this illness they are taking extra precautions just like healthcare workers. 

Anthony Amigone, who runs the Amigone chain of funeral homes in Western New York, says, "You've heard of the N95 mask... you've heard of regular masks.... when you use the surgical masks. There's also visors, eye goggles, and then head gear and then you cover yourself with garments."

But again like the healthcare industry there's a looming issue if the death rate climbs according to Lanotte.

"We are now in a spot where funeral directors are in desperate need of PPE (personal protective equipment) to do their jobs," Lanotte said.

Even transporting the body is different according to Amigone.

"Because it's respiratory you would cover the person's face before you move them because if move them they could expel," Amigone said. "So you have to guard against that." 

And there's the difficult storage issue for funeral directors. Lanotte says some cemetery staff has been cut back for health reasons, and they may be open less hours affecting burial schedules. 

"Worst case scenario - I mean something like we've seen in Italy where we see caskets in a church where they're waiting for them to be buried, disposed, or cremated," Lanotte said.

Sadly funeral directors around the state of New York are also checking to see their supply chains for items like caskets, embalming fluid, and other materials to prepare a body for burial. It's another grim reminder of the these times.

Unfortunately families are forced to make adjustments and sacrifices when it comes to those funerals. Warning signs about the virus and the risk of contact are posted on the entrances to funeral homes.

The now common phrase of "social distancing" and limits to gatherings now apply to funeral services here in Western New York and around the state according to Amigone, "The governor's executive order limits it to immediate family only and then as few as possible." 

So solemn services in funeral homes are even more so now, especially with fewer elderly family members attending and even less flowers. And wakes to view the deceased are now discouraged. 

So Lanotte says with new digital technology funeral directors are finding different options like live streaming and other methods to link families and friends in these difficult times. 

"There are funerals using Zoom, and Facetime and video outlets that will specifically focus on a funeral service," Lanotte said.

And at the cemeteries there is no long form graveside ceremony with again just immediate family present. Pallbearers are discouraged as the funeral director and staff handle the casket. 

Even making the arrangements can be done now with emails and phone conferences. And Amigone says electronic signatures are now sufficient whereas the signature had to be done in person.

Amigone says families seem to be adjusting, "Sure they would love to have the hugs for support but they seem to realize this is about the general community not just themselves."

He also says just like weddings and other social gatherings, it's increasingly the case where memorial services are actually being postponed for months to come. That's in part because of the pandemic.

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