Whitehall-Coplay Press

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Funerals affected by COVID-19

Wednesday, April 8, 2020 by Ed Courrier Special to The Press in Local News

The current COVID-19 pandemic has made saying farewell to lost loved ones and friends even more heart-wrenching. Although death care services are considered essential and are permitted by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to continue physical operations, large gatherings of any kind are prohibited.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has mandated funeral directors to “delay these events or limit these events to 10 people or less.”

The commonwealth’s health department advises directors to “encourage families to restrict burial services to only immediate family members and to refrain from physical interactions at these events.”

The directive also states, “Encourage families to hold memorial services to celebrate their loved one after social distancing restrictions are lifted.”

A cautionary tale of what could happen without such guidelines can be found in Albany, Ga. CNN recently reported a late February funeral and another held in early March turned the community into a coronavirus hot spot.

Lehigh Valley-based funeral homes are adapting to this new reality while still working to maintain a balance between comforting and protecting their clients, as well as shielding staff from the COVID-19 threat.

As of March 30, the Pennsylvania Department of State has temporarily waived the rule for funeral service practitioners to bury recently departed individuals within 10 days. Directors are still encouraged to do so but will be granted an extension of up to 30 days, where appropriate.

Funeral Director Aaron Schisler said memorial services following the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association guidelines are available at Schisler Funeral Home in Northampton, as well as its three other locations, including Bartholomew-Schisler Funeral Home in Nazareth, Campton Funeral Home in Palmerton and Miller Funeral Home in Lehighton.

“If the families choose a traditional burial now, with the traditional format, they realize they are keeping that to a maximum of 10 people,” Schisler said. “There is still the potential for a more involved celebration of life event down the road, once these restrictions are released.

“That will be difficult for these families to have to revisit these emotions again,” Schisler reflected.

Video conferencing with more clients in lieu of face-to-face meetings and livestreaming services have been explored in an attempt to protect everyone.

“We are going to see a lot of emotional distress,” said Brittany Kidwell, director of Cantelmi Long Funeral Home in Bethlehem, regarding how the restrictions on crowd size and social distancing can affect a large family that is already hurting.

Kidwell observed cremation with delayed services are being arranged more frequently.

“It’s really sailing uncharted waters,” Kidwell said about dealing with the unknowns surrounding COVID-19.

While adhering to existing safety protocols for preparing the deceased for either type of service, she asked, “How clean is too clean?”

Although the shelves are well stocked with personal protective equipment for the present, Kidwell expressed anxiety about the possibility of running out of supplies if the infection and death rate from coronavirus spikes in the Lehigh Valley.

“We are in the same position as a lot of first responders and hospitals,” PFDA President David Peake said. “We are scrambling to get as many PPEs that we can get our hands on. A lot of PPEs aren’t around or don’t exist at this point.”

While awaiting restocking help from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, Peake has advised funeral homes band together and share supplies during the crisis.