Like any other role, funeral directors have good days and bad days, but COVID-19 continues to present unexpected challenges.
They have rearranged chairs to follow social distancing and ensure employees and visitors wear masks. They are limiting the number of people in their chapels and have hand sanitizer available. They wear personal protective equipment when working with bodies and adjust as restrictions fluctuate.
As the pandemic continues, what society expects as part of the grieving process is still on hold, Jamin Mohler said. He and his wife, Kara, own the Brookside funeral homes in Moxee and Ellensburg and Shaw & Sons in Yakima.
For Mohler, limits on funerals are the toughest part of his job as the pandemic continues. It’s painful for families.
“We have 42 services unscheduled because of COVID,” he said Thursday. That’s 42 families who have buried or cremated their loved ones but want to memorialize them so are waiting to have services when they can, he added.
“And we don’t even have a date when that’s going to be,” Mohler said. “And so the complications in my mind are less centered on myself and more on these poor families.”
Funerals received national and international attention in the early months of the pandemic after COVID-19 outbreaks were connected to extended family gatherings. The Centers for Disease Control guidance for funerals acknowledges the difficulty that comes with restrictions, and the important role funerals play in the grieving process.
“Given the COVID-19 pandemic, hosting gatherings now could be dangerous to those who would want to participate,” the CDC says. “Family and friends are finding alternate ways to connect, support each other, and grieve after their loss. They understand the need to possibly plan for additional memorial services when COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted.”
Gov. Jay Inslee banned funerals in late March, allowed them again and recently announced tighter restrictions on the size of funerals, effective Aug. 10, in the state’s “Safe Start” plan.
Attendance is limited to 20% of the building’s occupancy limit or 30 people, whichever is less, and receptions will be prohibited. Social distancing and face masks are required.
Funeral directors get guidance from organizations like the Washington State Funeral Directors Association and the National Funeral Directors Association, which provide COVID-19 specific resources and assistance.
But as people who have chosen a career of working with people facing tremendous loss, funeral directors can struggle with what’s known as ”compassion fatigue,” just like those who provide medical care and respond to emergencies. When mass casualties occur, such as 9/11 and the 2014 Oso mudslide — and this pandemic — it can be overwhelming.
They’re seeing COVID-19 on death certificates over and over. Long-married couples have died of the disease within days and minutes of each other, sometimes followed by children or relatives.
The emotional impact for funeral directors is often overlooked during mass casualties and even the regular everyday occurrence of death, said Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association.
“We deal as funeral directors with people who have 100 years to those who never took a breath. It is definitely something that weighs very heavily on all of us,” Goff said.
Time of crisis
As of Friday, 196 people in Yakima County have died from complications of COVID-19, according to the Yakima Health District.
Along with the deaths due to the coronavirus, drug overdose deaths in Yakima County are higher than a year ago, Melissa Sixberry said Wednesday during the health district board of health meeting.
“We’ve had 49 overdoses this year. This time last year we had 21,” said Sixberry, who is director of disease control for the district. “There’s been a lot of fentanyl-related overdoses.”
People have lost jobs and calls to domestic violence shelters are up. The pandemic is affecting people physically, mentally and emotionally. A free bilingual crisis line has launched at Virginia Mason Memorial and is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; the number is 509-823-7808.
For funeral directors, there aren’t many more emotional support options than usual, Goff said.
Staff members of the Mohlers’ funeral homes have access to a licensed counselor, which was available before the pandemic, Jamin Mohler said.
“We’re also humans with emotions. ... If you need professional help, that’s understandable. We need to provide that, so we do,” he said. “We’re emotional people who care for people. We don’t just come into our cubicle and leave.”
“It grieves our heart when things like this happen to families, just like it grieves our heart when somebody dies of brain cancer.”
The Mohlers and their staff have been busier in the past year because of increasing business overall, he said. Though they have worked with many families who have lost loved ones due to COVID-19, they have not had to add staff, Mohler said.
“The challenge for us, for me, our staff (is) how can we best take care of families with the restrictions that are on us,” he said.
“It is what it is. I’m not criticizing it,” Mohler said. But it feels “very sterile.”
“I am a hugger. That’s who I am,” he said. “Now we’re not even shaking hands.”
Working with families
Mohler is more fulfilled when he takes care of families, even more so in busier times, he said.
Carolyn Smith of Smith Funeral Home in Sunnyside has worked at a funeral home for most of her life.
“I tell people when a person calls us, and asks us to help their family, that is the most humbling request somebody can do. They are giving us their loved ones to care for,” she said. “Once I lose that feeling in my heart, I will walk away from this business.”
She is most frustrated, like Mohler, with what she can’t do for families during the pandemic. She’s less concerned about her emotional state but worried about others and state regulations change and restrictions vary among cemeteries.
“Now you can’t even hug a person. It’s just the craziest thing,” she said. “That’s what I miss the most, not being able to hug these families and tell them we appreciate your confidence in us.”
Smith’s building seats 300, but gatherings are limited by the attendance rules. Larger groups must be divided up because everyone can’t come in at the same time, Smith said. People are following the precautions.
“They’re using common sense when they come into the facility. This common sense people are using for themselves is better than all these restrictions,” she added.