The business of dying - Funeral industry adapts to life with COVID

·4 min read

There are some things in life we can't escape from – and dying is one of those things.

Funeral traditions have developed over centuries with many variations, however the one commonality is the need for family, friends, and loved ones to gather and say goodbye to someone who has passed away.

With the current pandemic now affecting our society for a full year, the funeral industry has had to adapt to a new way of serving the public.

For a century and a half, at least in North America, most funerals have included a visitation where family receive friends and relatives, condolences are expressed and people reminisce about the deceased. That is usually followed by a funeral service to honour the person that has passed.

During a time that can be very emotional, physical expressions like giving a hug is normal.

However, during this pandemic, those sentiments are frowned upon. This can be very difficult for many people who naturally want to greet friends and relatives in a familiar way.

The Rod Abrams Funeral Home in Tottenham has been serving the area since 1974.

The staff have had to adapt to a new protocol when providing services that keep within the restrictions and boundaries set out by both Health Authorities as well as the Bereavement Authority of Ontario – the governing body of the industry.

This includes the number of visitors allowed to enter the funeral home as well as necessary sanitizing procedures between visits.

“We're allowed 30 per cent (capacity) of our chapel area or whatever room we are hosting the event in,” explained Funeral Director, Scott Abrams, of the situation under a Code Red alert. “There is a formula that has been worked out, with six feet distancing between people and things like that. For us, we are allowed up to the maximum of 50, and that includes clergy and an organist if there is one. That doesn't include funeral home staff. As of the lock-down we're down to ten people. If a family has 12 people in the family, only ten are allowed in.”

To accommodate a larger setting, the funeral home has adapted to allowing visitations to occur in shifts.

“We see families around here that have 30 people in the immediate family,” Scott explained. “We can have different groups of people but we can't cycle them through. If someone wanted to have different groups where ten people come in and leave, then ten more people come in, we can still do that but we have to do 15 minutes of cleaning between each group.”

Cleaning between groups is a detailed process that means sanitizing everything from washrooms to door knobs.

Many people are now choosing to forego a traditional visitation and have a memorial service at a later date. Some services are also attended in a virtual format where services are broadcast via internet so friends can still view the proceedings.

This is especially helpful during a time when people aren't supposed to cross over to a different Health Unit region.

“Everyone wants to say goodbye,” Rod Abrams explained. “Even if they're not having a formal ceremony, we can set something up in our side room and families can come in and see their loved one on a dressing table. If they are not having a formal service, they can still have their time to say goodbye. What many families are doing is having a small gathering now, to get what they need for the immediate family, then trying to have a scheduled celebration at a later date. Until everything is fully open where you can have food, drinks, and are allowed to touch, it is really hard for families to have those events.”

From a business perspective, the pandemic has caused a considerable financial burden for many places who invested in their businesses only to be shut down without warning.

The Rod Abrams Funeral Home Recently completed a new 3000 square foot addition to their facility that overlooks the ravine behind the building. It was designed to host receptions.

After using the new facility successfully for six months, the pandemic caused a shut-down as they aren't allowed to serve drinks or food.

For now it's a waiting game, but Scott and Rod are confident that eventually their service will get back to a more normal situation.

“We're hoping this is just interrupted,” Scott said. “If it went back to where we could have large numbers, it (funeral services) will go back to what it was – that's what we fully expect.”

Next week: The emotional toll

Brian Lockhart, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Tecumseth Times