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In a pandemic, it’s only natural to focus on first responders. Pandemic or not, ERs, ICUs and nursing homes are where patients with life-threatening illnesses find care, and either recover or die. When death occurs, it’s easy to overlook the role funeral homes play as last-responders. Though each of the funeral homes featured in this series have likely provided services for COVID fatalities, the focus of this series is not on those deaths per se. Rather, it looks at how precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus affect the services that funeral directors arrange and that mourners experience in viewing, memorializing, burying or cremating the dead.
If the COVID crisis reveals anything, it’s that some services are truly indispensable. As last responders, licensed funeral homes are the only prescribed option for families sending deceased loved ones off to eternal rest.
Janet Thomas-Caston is the executive director of three-generation Thomas Funeral Home located at 3920 North 24th Street. “Certainly it is an essential service,” she says. “We’re there to provide the services we would want for ourselves as safely as we possibly can.”
The mortuary has served generations of families. “We’re grateful and blessed they have that confidence in us,” she says. Her mother Ruth Thomas still keeps her mortician’s license active at age 100.
Roeder Mortuary is another family-owned, multi generational funeral home serving North Omaha at its 4932 Ames Avenue and 108th and Maple chapels.
“We’re essential workers,” Brian Roeder says unequivocally. “We can’t say no. How do you tell a grieving family no?”
But COVID’s made it difficult to be there in the way people expect.
“That March-April-May time frame was the most tumultuous time we went through,” he says. “We were looking for answers. Everybody was scrambling trying to figure things out.”
That included the Nebraska Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) whose board he serves on. There was scant information. Early recommendations proved fluid.
Six months later, COVID precautions still impose unprecedented restrictions. Thomas-Caston marvels how well people have coped. “They understand and comply. Not everybody does, but by and large.”
A 10-person limit per room rule is now at 50 percent of capacity.
“As hard as the 10-person rule was for families,” Roeder says, “it made it easier because there was a clear cut rule we could count and control. But I felt so bad for families that lost a loved one during that time. We tried to work with families the best we could, We did visitations all day to comply and still give people a chance to pay their respects. It was a logistical challenge sometimes.”
“You just follow what the guidelines say and go with the flow with what you’re supposed to do,” Thomas-Caston says. “In the early stage of the pandemic we had more graveside services than usual. They were private. Then we expanded to chapel services and eventually to church services.”
Adaptation is the operative word.
“People are doing the best that they can with what they’ve been given. They recognize this is what we’ve got to do – this is our new normal. Not to say they’re happy about it,” Roeder says.
When memorializing someone, the instinct is for intimacy, yet mourners are directed to do the opposite. Thomas-Caston says, “People tend to want to reach out to the bereaved and be physically close, but we’re asking them to social distance.”
Getting folks to stay apart, she says, “can be kind of touchy,” adding, “You try to figure out a tactful way they can social distance.”
“But we’re not going to be a jerk about it and kick people out who are grieving,” Roeder says. “At some point we have to say we’re all adults, we know the rules, let’s abide by them the best we can.”
Most mourners wear masks. Hand sanitizer dispensers abound. Signs on doors and in pews remind to practice safety first.
Human nature being what it is, Roeder says, some folks insisting on strict protocols end up ignoring them when emotions kick in. Embraces and kisses get exchanged, COVID be damned.
“Before Douglas County issued a mask mandate, it was such a gray area and so polarizing,” he says. “We had families in the clear camp of everybody must wear masks and others who were like, ‘No way in hell we’re wearing masks.’ The mandate made that easier.”
He notes “a very different dynamic” at Roeder’s chapel in Gretna. “In Omaha people recognize the COVID threat more, but Sarpy County doesn’t have near the cases Douglas County does, so they’re treating it differently. They’re way more relaxed there.”
A funeral experience during COVID is “different for sure,” Roeder says. “Last spring was definitely different – not in a great way – just because the rules and restrictions were still so new.”
Services were very small, often private affairs.
Omaha native Jackie Barfield, who lives in Dallas, Texas, lost her brother Jimmy Ray Barfield of Omaha in August. The U.S. Navy veteran died, age 63, at UNMC after suffering a massive stroke. She regrets most family members, including herself, were unable to visit him there due to COVID protocols. They were also unable to celebrate his life at Thomas Funeral Home the way they could have otherwise. “Normally we would come in (by) the hundreds, but we couldn’t do that,” she says. “We didn’t really have a repast. The hugging we’re used to, we had to be careful and limit that. It was totally different.”
“Most people are still cautious coming out to large gatherings, which is where online streaming helps,” Roeder says.
In April, his Maple chapel held a viewing of U.S. Army veteran and Michigan native Robert A. Hull, who died at age 96. It marked the mortuary’s first live video streaming. The Omaha viewing was attended by four family members. Most family viewed online.
“Doing the live streaming,” Roeder says, “has made it a lot easier.”
Implementing streaming services is among many changes COVID concerns have prompted. “We can’t fathom a time where it got this crazy for this long,” Roeder says. “There were tornados and blizzards, but those events were not six to eight months long. We’re still in it. When is the end in sight? When are we going to get back to normal? I think the unknown is the hardest part.”
From an industry perspective, it’s turned things upside down.
“We’re a very social, personal industry,” he says. “We rely on face to face meetings. Making arrangements over the phone or Web is really tough. There’s just things you can’t do remotely.”
Those new stresses are on top of long hours, being on call, working weekends, organizing and staffing memorial, burial and cremation services.
“Being available to families,” Roeder says, “means you’ve got to treat it like a ministry.”
Janet Thomas-Caston considers it a calling. “The Lord places you in a particular service and you have to do that. It’s more or less a community commitment. We try to be there for the people.” There’s heavy trust and responsibility to shoulder.
“It’s a wear on you,” Roeder confides. “And it’s not getting easier with family dynamics way more complex now. Technology is making it easier and harder. You have to be up on so many different things. You’re dealing with a lot of stuff.”
Funeral directors need the right demeanor of being low-key, respectful, yet engaging. “You never want to push things on people. Some people need leadership and direction from you. For some, it’s a sense of relief their loved one isn’t suffering anymore. For others, it’s a sense of shock because it was a sudden, unexpected death,” he says. “On the financial side, some have pre-planned services. Some come into it blindsided. You have to be prepared to deal with all of it, right then and there.”
Services vary per families’ cultural, religious traditions and personal requests. Like Thomas Funeral Home, Roeder’s North O chapel largely serves the Black community. Its Maple site is more diverse.
The science and scared sides meet in the back room, where the embalming and preparation of the corpse happen. During COVID, morticians struggle finding personal protective equipment, wipes and bleach.
“It’s tough,” Roeder says. “We’ve really had to think outside the box on how to get some of this stuff.” Safety protocols haven’t changed much in an industry that’s developed procedures around AIDS, TB, et cetera. “There’s a couple extra steps we implemented as far as sanitization,” he says, “but beyond that we were already there in terms of precautions and protection.”
Collegial support helps navigating the crisis. Serving on the NFDA board gives Roeder a preview of what’s “coming down the pipeline.” Thomas-Caston stays connected with her colleagues to “talk about concerns and restrictions – it’s reassuring other directors are going through it as well.” As for any notion of returning to normal, she wonders “if there’s ever going to be such a thing,” adding, “We’ll just be glad to see it settle down – but we’ll get through it.”
If nothing else, Roeder suggests, “This is going to make the general public realize how important funeral services are.”