As we all face extended periods of ‘Shelter in Place’, the impact is rippling through our communities, social culture, and rituals. We have already heard the reports from Italy of hospitals, morgues and funeral homes struggling to cope with the deceased in the wake of their epidemic. Here in the US, where the pandemic is now spiraling fast, we hear reports from the funeral industry of the rapid response to change that they are now coping with.
The Funeral Industry
On average there are 7,800 deaths a day in the US. This number is likely to rise with the increase in deaths from COVID-19. The estimate ranges from tens of thousands to 2 million in a ‘worst-case’ scenario. 55% of families opt for a cremation service and 40% choose burial. Whether burial or cremation, many funeral services involve a gathering of people. Now that the gathering of people is being restricted (in some states mandated), funeral homes are contending with informing families that holding a funeral service is not possible, or very restricted.
How are Death-care Practices changing in response?
The shift to Virtual Funerals & Live-streaming of funeral services.
The immediate, and most significant, response is that funeral homes are ramping up the availability of offering a ‘Virtual Funeral’. A virtual funeral can involve only the funeral service professionals delivering services and streaming those to the family. Or, allowing just the immediate family to attend and live-stream a service to extended family and friends. Those funeral homes that may not have already subscribed to professional live-streaming funeral technology, are simply putting an iPhone on a tripod and broadcasting on Facebook Live.
Restrictions on Funeral Homes as open Community Spaces.
A number of funeral homes are changing the daily operations of how they function. Additional precautions are being taken in the collection of bodies. And stringent sanitizing processes have been put in place each time a member of the public enters a funeral establishment. Many funeral homes have closed their doors to the community as ‘walk-in’ locations. Families are still welcome to visit to make arrangements, but by-appointment-only, so that better sanitizing can be implemented between visitations.
Guidelines are being issued and reviewed daily on improving services for collecting bodies and offering funeral services. A face-mask has to be put on a body at the collection, and additional sanitizing processes accompany funeral personnel working on continuing to offer this vital service to our communities.
How cremation may be the preferred viable disposition option
We are likely to witness an increase in cremation services & online arrangement processes. Cremation was already a growing disposition trend in the U.S., but in some metro areas, cremation may become the only viable option in the coming weeks. More importantly, direct cremation services are likely to provide the best alternative for many families. A direct cremation is conducted without any services from the funeral home and can be arranged without the need for the family to visit the funeral home. Families can gather together to hold a memorial service at a later date when social distancing restrictions are reduced.
An important consideration of the significance of direct cremation is that not only does it limit social contact at this point, but it also offers families an affordable alternative. Many families have already been laid-off work and are worried about their finances. A direct cremation can be conducted in most cities for between $700 to $1,000. The DFS Memorials network of direct cremation providers can help you manage an affordable direct cremation service.
Funeral Homes may have to adapt their storage facilities to hold cremated remains.
The U.K. has already instructed its municipal crematories to hold cremated remains for families until this COVID-19 crisis has passed. I anticipate that many funeral homes in the U.S. will need to be prepared to hold more remains and offer the storage of remains for families. This may be more challenging for funeral locations in highly-populated cities experiencing an increased rate of death calls.
In Italy and Spain, the military has stepped up to assist the funeral industry as morgues become overcrowded. Support has been required with transportation to crematories and additional morgue facilities.
County, State & Federal responses and adaptations – law changes & emergency measures
It is likely that some existing funeral legislation may have to be adapted in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. The funeral industry has strict licensing laws that can vary by state. For example, in New York, only a licensed funeral director can collect the deceased from the place of death. This may become unrealistic in the coming weeks, and this law may need to be revised, even if only as a temporary emergency measure.
Funeral shipping and repatriation under travel restrictions
As a nation with a strong immigrant heritage, repatriating citizens back to a country of origin has been a staple part of the funeral industry. However, recent travel restrictions have put limitations on funeral shipping at present. Families are now faced with two options – arrange for storage of the deceased until such time as travel restrictions are lifted, or to arrange a cremation in the US and ship the cremated remains at a later date.