The pain of saying goodbye to a loved one is always difficult.
But restrictions placed on funeral services due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus are making times even harder for grieving friends and family.
On Tuesday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear decreed that funeral services should be limited to "private burials" with only the "closest of family" in attendance.
A March 20 newsletter from the Funeral Directors Association of Kentucky was sent out to funeral homes around the state, including the five located here in Kentucky. It said that the association "assured the Governor’s office that we were doing everything within our power to get the word out and to keep our members aware of all directives from his office and from the CDC." They were also "informed that if the Governor did see widespread non-compliance with his requirements then he would take matters into his own hands and issue an Executive order. He does not want to have to do that."
Here in Pulaski County, all the funeral homes are going along with the governor's orders — but all are sympathetic to the plight of friends who might be denied the opportunity to see their departed one last time.
"We had a visitation Wednesday already set and placed," said Funeral Director Lisa Stephens of Southern Oaks Funeral Home. "I called the state board and they said they got a memo from the governor saying how it was going to be. I said, 'We have this set for tonight,' and they said, 'No. It's imperative you go by what he's telling you to do.' It was highly upsetting (to those attending) to have it be just the immediate family and it hurts us too to watch it."
Most families have been understanding about the situation, noted Stephens. However, it puts funeral homes in the unfortunate position of potentially having to turn people away. Staying within CDC guidelines of having gatherings be no more than 10 people maximum, it's not always easy to tell who's truly the "closest of family" as per orders.
"How would we know this person isn't a sister or brother?" said Stephens. She noted that it may be based on who's listed in the obituary, but Somerset Undertaking Co. and Crematory Funeral Director Jill Flynn wasn't even sure about that.
"We're kind of building on what it means every day," said Flynn. "First it was who was mentioned in the obituary, but when it's a whole host of (family members referenced), we can't (go by that), so it basically is immediate family that's really allowed even at the graveside. Now if everyone wanted to be mindful and stay six feet apart, you could cover the whole cemetery."
Added Tyler Hibbard, Funeral Director for both Morris & Hislope and Pulaski Funeral Homes, "We are relaying that (information) and trying to make it as easy as possible, trying to keep it down to as few (attendees) as possible for the actual service, but how do you tell a family, 'No, once you get to 10 people, you can't have (any more), you can't have the grandchildren.' Sometimes the grandparents may be the ones who raised those children, so it's hard to say no."
And does that count the minister? The funeral staff? Stephens thinks they're "apart from the situation" but that was left unclear in the official order.
Hibbard said that if there's a service at the graveside, it has to be a private burial, not a "full-blown service," and they've tried to do a service with no formal chairs for seating. He added that according to the Funeral Directors Association of Kentucky, if funeral homes weren't adhering to the commendations, the governor would invoke an order for direct burials with no services. Stephens said that they could also be shut down and have their licenses taken away if they didn't do as the governor told them.
Stephens said this might also encourage more families during this time to opt for a single service rather than a visitation as well as a burial or funeral service.
"I'm thinking that pretty much because (only 10 people are allowed), everyone will go to a one-day service," she said, noted that there's a funeral scheduled for Saturday that had a prior visitation with the same limited capacity. "This may be it for a little while for us."
Kim Lockard-Brown of Lake Cumberland Funeral Home said that so far, families "have been very understanding" and many have even posted on their social media accounts requests for donations or care packages in lieu of being able to attend a service.
"It does make us very sorry to have to (not allow full services)," she said. "It really makes it hard on us when we have to limit it to a certain amount of people. It's a very sad situation."
But is it going too far? Closing public venues like theaters and restaurants and canceling concerts and the like is one thing, but a funeral service is different — it's the last opportunity a person will have to say goodbye to their loved one. Not everyone was so sure the governor's orders were for the absolute best in this case.
"I wish we could say, 'Okay, we'll bring in groups of 10 at a time, the rest of you all stay outside,'" said Stephens. "I think everybody is being very cautious right now, washing their hands, staying six feet apart. I'm very understanding (about the efforts to prevent the spread of the virus), but I hurt for the families. It's the last memories they've got."
Said Hibbard, "I do understand where the CDC and government are coming from, but I also see the grieving side of the family that's not had that last chance to say goodbye." He added, "If you wait 8-10 weeks to have memorial service, it just drags on the grieving process for families and only makes it more difficult for the families we're serving in their time of need."
"Yes and no," said Brown as to whether the orders were the right thing for funeral gatherings. "This is just a time that families need each other and need people. It's a 'yes and no' situation. We want to protect everyone, but we understand the situation as far as people grieving. They need people right now. It's a tough situation."
Only Flynn emphatically said that the orders were "definitely the right thing to do," and said that it was comparable to cancelling church services, as Beshear also wanted. She was also preparing for the situation the funeral homes now find themselves in.
"We had a public visitation and funeral last Saturday. Everyone had a feeling this might be coming, but at that point, the governor hadn't made a mandate," she said. "It was a delicate situation as far as not spreading germs, then three days later, it's a mandate."
Flynn said her husband's aunt was buried Friday with a private viewing at the funeral home, and though no one told him so explicitly, he wasn't allowed to come, being a nephew.
One solution is a private memorial service at a later date, something Flynn is familiar with working at a funeral home that does cremations.
"Some people are weirded out by that, but with cremations becoming more of a choice people lean toward, it's not uncommon where someone does the cremation but plans ahead, plans two months from (the cremation), and gets a weekend where everyone can come in and have more of a 'Celebration of Life.' If people could look at it like that, then let's have more of a celebration and plan a day. Hopefully the sun will shine and we'll all come together and remember the person we loved."
As of right now, it looks like that may be a community-wide plan to help those who won't be allowed to attend their loved one's funeral service because of the governor's orders. Hibbard said that all five of the local funeral homes had discussed it, and there are now plans to hold a community-wide memorial service once the ban is lifted and things have returned to some state of normalcy.
"It's for all the families we serve during this time so the public can come and have the service collectively," said Hibbard. Obviously, the date and time is still unknown as of right now.
None of the funeral directors felt their business would suffer too much as a result of the restrictions, even though more people might go with a one-day service.
"People unfortunately are still going pass away in this time. We're working to make everything as easy as possible for the families we are serving," said Hibbard. "I don't think this will necessarily going to impact the funeral business per se. We will still be serving families in their time of need."
Said Stephens of the impact, "(It's) not enough to hurt us. Already, most people are doing a one-day service anyway. We cut our business hours down, we've got signs on the door. If anyone needs anything, if they need to pick up death certificates or anything, call us and we can help them out."
For grieving families, the changes are just one more source of stress in what is always and inevitably an emotional time. But being as the situation with COVID-19 and the national response to it is "unprecedented," as Flynn said, funeral homes will continue to do what they do best — helping families get through the worst of the storm.
"I'm all for protecting everybody. I'd feel terrible if an elderly person was in here and someone brought the virus in on them," said Stephens, "but then you think about what the family is having to go through, and it's really sad."