Saying goodbye to a loved one is always hard. Grieving during a pandemic is even harder.
Ever since the coronavirus hit North Texas, people have had to change the way they mourn, says North Dallas Funeral Home director Kyle Ko. Staff now have to supervise funerals to ensure guests maintain a safe distance from one another and the deceased.
“They forget the fact that their loved one has COVID-19,” Ko says. “So they’ll go over to the casket and start touching their hands or kissing their faces. It’s really, really dangerous.”
Since March, funeral directors around DFW have been readying themselves for an onslaught of coronavirus-related deaths. The number of reported cases has climbed since the state reopened, meaning a surge in fatalities may be just around the corner.
With 7,455 confirmed cases as of Monday afternoon, Dallas County has the second-highest number of cases statewide, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Tarrant County has the third-highest amount at 4,447 confirmed cases.
But Ko says that so far, he’s witnessed fewer COVID-19 deaths than he anticipated. He estimates his funeral home has served around 15 to 20 coronavirus victims in all.
Following “Phase 1” of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening plan, the Texas Funeral Service Commission lifted its 10-person funeral service limit. Now, each funeral home decides on its own capacity, although they must continue to enforce a strict 6-foot distancing rule.
At the beginning of a service, Ko says staff will gently inform guests of these social distancing measures. But in a haze of grief, many forget such stipulations.
Ko says he’s had to remind people “countless times” to refrain from approaching the casket of a coronavirus victim. Not even the Centers for Disease Control has a firm answer as to how long COVID-19 remains in a body, Ko says. And researchers have found it’s possible to catch the virus from a deceased person.
“I know that some tests showed that even the embalmed remains still tested positive for COVID-19,” Ko says.
To help accommodate family members who could not attend the memorial, Ko says his funeral home began live-streaming services. Since the pandemic began, they’ve broadcast to families as far away as Korea, Vietnam, Australia and Brazil.
Fort Worth Funerals & Cremations has encountered “a handful” of COVID-19 deaths, which is fewer than expected, says director Jade Dacus.
Even still, Dacus says she and her staff are constantly cleaning the funeral home to prevent possible spread. All surfaces and doorknobs are meticulously wiped down and employees also wear personal protective equipment like masks and gloves at all times.
Like Ko, Dacus says she’s had to remind people to social distance and to refrain from touching the deceased. Not only that, but it’s hard on staff to curb the urge to console grievers.
“When we do meet with families, that Southern hospitality of handshaking and stuff like that is kind of checked,” Dacus says. “Some funeral directors, we hug and things like that. And staying distant when you’re trying to comfort has been difficult.”
At Mulkey-Bowles-Montgomery Funeral Home in Denton, part-owner Steve Bowles says it’s been business as usual. So far, he’s only encountered 11 deaths attributed to COVID-19.
By and large, the embalming process has remained the same since the pandemic hit, Bowles says. The one difference is that staff must wear N95 masks instead of regular ones when handling bodies, since those masks remove more particulates from the air.
But protective equipment supplies have been hard to come by, Bowles says. In pre-pandemic days, he’d purchase them through a mortuary supplier. Once the coronavirus hit, though, the government rerouted such supplies to the healthcare industry, leaving funeral homes in a lurch.
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“The last batch of masks I bought, I actually bought off of Amazon,” Bowles says. “So I’ve had to revert to some of those types of things. It’s very unfortunate.”
Upon receiving a body for burial, Bowles says the funeral home has about a week to inter it. That time limit doesn’t apply to cremations, though. As such, some families are opting to cremate so they can hold a full service at a later date.
For some, delaying the funeral may be the best option since they’d rather not restrict the number of guests. Still, Bowles says postponement can be detrimental to mourners, since doing so may prolong the grieving process.
“We’re happy to help families as much as we can,” he says. “And we just are sad to see that sometimes they can’t have the large services that they would like to have.”