COLUMBIA CITY — When a person dies, a large part of the grieving process takes place at the funeral, where friends and family share stories, comfort each other and offer support.
Like nearly every aspect of Hoosiers’ lives this month, that process has been interrupted by the coronavirus, COVID-19, because CDC guidelines are limiting gatherings to 50 people or less. Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan has limited groups in public to a maximum of 10.
“Right now, all services will be held privately for immediate family,” said Brett Gerber, funeral director at DeMoney-Grimes Funeral Home in Columbia City.
DeMoney-Grimes has closed off part of its building to the public, removed candy dishes and is making sure tissue boxes are full so visitors are not reaching down into the box, potentially leaving germs behind.
Other funeral homes in Whitley County are taking similar precautions. Columbia City’s two funeral homes, Smith & Sons and DeMoney-Grimes, have been communicating frequently about the changes.
“We want to make sure we’re on the same page,” said Scott Smith, of Smith & Sons Funeral Home.
At DeMoney, staff will be opening doors for the public to limit the number of touches from the public. In addition, seats have been spaced out to encourage social distancing — much different than normal, when people want to be close to each other for comfort.
“As funeral directors it is not only our responsibility to take care of the deceased (and) their families, but also the health of the public,” Gerber said. “We have to look at the whole aspect.”
Some funeral homes, like DeMoney-Grimes, are now offering the option to post the funeral videos to their website so those who could not attend can still view the ceremony. Also, many funeral homes, including Whitley County’s, are hosting the smaller funerals now and later, after the pandemic crisis is over, will host celebrations of life with more guests in attendance.
New Haven’s Harper’s Community Funeral Home General Manager David Rousculp, said in a news release from the Allen County business, “We will continue to guide families, as we always have, in ways they can meaningfully commemorate the life of their loved one, while adhering to the guidance issued by federal, state and local public health officials.”
In some instances, the service can be delayed, but it is unclear how long this situation will last.
“We can delay a service, it doesn’t have to be done for 3-5 days or a week, the family can try to see what happens if restrictions are altered for public gatherings,” Gerber said.
However, many families are opposed to that.
“We have tried to avoid postponing services, as that would just add to the family’s grief by delaying their closure,” said Tom Drzewiecki, owner of Thomas Funeral Home of Garrett. “The idea of a memorial service at a later date has been met with opposition, as families have said, ‘I don’t want to go through this all again.’ At this time, we are still able to have public visitation, but that could change at any time.”
Like everything else, the future is quite unknown — but local funeral directors are most concerned with protecting the living.
Earlier this month in Georgia, it was announced that a pair of funerals may have been connected in the transmission of COVID-19. Protecting visitors, as well as funeral home staff, is important. An entire funeral home can be quarantined if the virus takes hold of employees.
If that happens, local funeral homes are working together to back each other up.
“If something does happen, we’d be right there to help the other out,” Gerber said. “Ultimately, we’re here for the community. I see others (funeral homes) more as colleagues than competitors. Whether we’re friends or not, we need to band together and help each other out.”
There have been reports in other countries of mass burial pits and mass cremation after areas have been overrun with deaths. Local funeral homes don’t expect to see that situation in our area.
“In the past when there have been concerns with other infectious disease, there have been discussions about taking people right to the crematory, but that’s not a concern right now,” Gerber said.
Since the disease is mostly spread through coughing and sneezing, transmission is less of a concern after the individual is deceased. However, officials are still advising families and loved ones not to touch the bodies at the services.
Local funeral homes are taking guidance from the Indiana Funeral Directors Association, an organization to which Smith is secretary-treasurer and sits on the executive board. The association has had several meetings with local and national experts.
“We’re trying to decide on what scale we as funeral directors respond to this,” Smith said. “Is everyone prepared?”
Smith has spent 38 years at his family-owned funeral home — this is not the first time he’s prepared for a potential pandemic.
“Every time you have a panic and you make sure you have the equipment and supplies you need,” Smith said. “A lot of times it’ll sit there for years.”
Funeral directors and embalmers already follow universal precautions with every individual, and that has not changed.
“Anyone can be infected with something that we don’t know about, so we always make sure we protect our staff and the community,” Gerber said.
As an extra precaution, many are taking extra steps to disinfect mouths, noses and ears, covering the face and utilizing body bags in all instances.
“We wouldn’t normally do all of that,” Smith said. “But we won’t be able to tell who all has the virus.”
Smith has been deputy coroner for Whitley County the past eight years and was county coroner for eight years prior. He is running again unopposed for coroner in this year’s election.
— Reporter Sue Carpenter contributed to this story.