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COVID-19 Outbreak Limits Last Rites, Slashes Billable Services – Michigan Funeral Director

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Coffin - Sputnik International
The escalation of the coronavirus pandemic has forced the US death care industry to change the way mourners bid farewell to their loved ones. A Michigan funeral director describes how his firm is adjusting to the new rules.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected every aspect of US life, including funereal services: the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended live-streaming funeral services and limiting the number of physically-present grievers to just close family members.

Although Michigan is not counted among those US states hit the hardest by the Covid-19 outbreak, the pandemic has nevertheless taken its toll on grievers and funeral homes in the Great Lake State. Matt Hollebeek, director of Heritage Life Story Funeral Homes, a longtime family business, foresees that in the short term the funeral home's services will be limited due to the pandemic.

Sputnik: What are the changes for usual funerals processes at the moment?

Matt Hollebeek: We operate two funeral homes in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Currently, by executive order from our governor, we are limited to 50 people or under at any event or funeral ceremony. We are still allowed to host visitations and funerals but with limited attendance. Local cemeteries have put on restrictions, some have banned any type of graveside ceremony. Only the actual burial is permitted.

​We are also seeing more screening at nursing care facilities when we are called to remove the deceased. Just last night I was screened at the door, health questions, temperature taken and gloves and mask required before I could enter the building. In the last few days, we have seen requests from families to conduct our arrangement conference, (which is) usually (done) in person, now on the phone or over email.

Sputnik: Do you use live-streaming for funerals and how is it perceived?

Matt Hollebeek: We have had video-broadcast services for the last few years, so that isn't really all that new for us. But what we have seen is that it has become a lot more important for families to have that option available. We have seen the number of viewers of these broadcasts go up significantly. I've taken a few calls from local funeral directors asking our advice on this matter.

Sputnik: Are there are any special precautions for funerals?

Matt Hollebeek: There really aren't anything specific for the general public, just the same guidelines that they have for everyday activities. Assume you have the virus, limit your public exposure, wash or sanitise your hands, limit touching your face, cover a cough. We have posted signs in our funeral homes asking people to refrain from shaking hands, hugging and kissing. We have also decided to stop using register books in the building and reminded them to do so online. If families have insisted on using one, we have had a single staff member sign their names for them. 

We have had new training for our staff in the area of handling the deceased. We have put in to place new safety measures for our staff, to protect or health and the health of our families. We are in a difficult situation in that we have to care for the dead and their families and then protect our own health and our families as well.

Sputnik: How do mourners react to the changes? Do you think the situation might bring changes in how people handle death?

Matt Hollebeek: At this point, most families are very understanding. The early few days, people seemed a bit annoyed by it. Some were angry that they couldn't hold the services that they wanted for their loved one due to restrictions. We try to communicate with them that at least at this point we are still allowed to hold any type of service and that may be a luxury future families won't be allowed.

Sputnik: Do you think the situation might hurt your business? How?

Matt Hollebeek: Absolutely. We are a service industry heavy on staff. But we can't just close down the building like a gym or movie theatre and lay off employees. We are still available 24/7. We are ready to serve our community at a moment's notice, day or night. But the public use of our facilities and staff is what will be underutilised for the foreseeable future. We project that we won't be having public visitations, public funerals, etc, so while we are still caring for the same amount of families, the billable service will be at a much lower rate. So we as owners, we are concerned. We have staff, rent, and the usual overhead to pay.

I think in the short term, services will be very limited, just caring for the disposition of the body. But in the long term, I think we will see people recognise that a funeral and memorial service is very necessary. That gathering together, as a family and community, to share in the loss of an individual, is necessary and healing as we move forward. And I think that would be significant, because I have seen a trend over the last 20 years: many believe that funerals are a waste of time and money.
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