The Impact of COVID-19 on U.S. Funeral Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world and torn families apart. Some communities have suffered, and others have been brought closer together due to the shared loss and isolation individuals across the world are experiencing.

One industry lost in the mainstream chatter is death care. Funeral home directors are experiencing an overwhelming amount of over-exposure to death and funeral homes, causing rifts in their mental health and business practices overall.

In this article, 4BSF covers the impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. funeral industry and helps guide funeral directors through the new regulations and proper practices to help keep both their mental health and their funeral home thriving amid the overwhelming numbers of bodies the pandemic has brought to the death care industry.

The Impact of COVID-19 on U.S. Funeral Industry

The funeral industry is drowning with the sheer number of bodies that are coming through their doors every day, especially in COVID hot zones where case counts are significantly higher every day.

Many funeral directors are disturbed that their large-capacity morgues are at capacity, with more bodies waiting, and even more being refused. Many crematory operators are working 24/7 to attempt to keep up with the demand, yet still operating at full capacity.

The impact of COVID-19 deaths on the U.S. funeral industry goes beyond that, however. Many funeral directors’ mental health is suffering due to the emotional toll the over-exposure to death and funerals are having, especially for those who were personally affected by the pandemic.

Their inability to properly facilitate the family’s mourning, the overwhelming number of bodies coming in for preparation and burial, the fear and risk of exposing themselves, and the workload burnout have all combined into a cocktail of emotional distress for funeral directors.

COVID-19 Restrictions Force Funeral Homes to Adapt

While funeral directors struggle to keep up with the increasing demand placed on their funeral home’s capacity and personal mental health, they must also adapt to the digital age to satisfy their client’s needs for funeral services. Many funeral homes are not equipped to run live streams of funeral and memorial services.

These funeral homes are not equipped to begin online services, yet they are being forced to adapt if they want to survive in the economic strain of the pandemic. This has caused funeral directors’ mental health to further decline, especially in smaller funeral homes that are understaffed and overworked with simply preparing the sheer number of bodies coming through the doors.

Furthermore, they must adapt to virtual consultations, which removes the funeral director’s ability to comfort the family in person and provide as much empathy and grief counseling as they might normally. This removal of rewarding aspects of the job, among many other factors straining funeral homes, has caused several homes to close under the pressure.

Funeral homes that can adapt under the pressure and continue providing services, however, are likely to see an economic boom as the world adjusts to the pandemic.

COVID-19’s Lasting Effect on How We Honor the Dead

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how families mourn the loss of and honor the dead, potentially forever. (1) In wake of a financial crisis, many families were forced to opt for alternative burial options. Cremation became an increasingly popular method to inter bodies, with urns placed in homes and burial niches over expensive caskets and in-ground burials.

“Cremations had already been gaining in popularity and accounted for 56.8% of its services in 2019 versus 53.5% in 2017, up from about 30% twenty years ago. The COVID-19 death surge has created a mini-boom in demand for cremations because why have a funeral if no one can come?”

—  Christopher Helman

Many families were also forced to seek online crowdfunding and view their loved one’s funeral service and memorial online, forcing many funeral homes to adapt to the digital age and provide streaming services and online grief therapy services.

Do Funerals Need to Be Delayed Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic?

COVID-19 does not affect the method of how the body is interred. Cremation or full burial may still be pursued according to the wishes of the family.

While the family may opt to delay the funeral service, services and visitations may still be held with changes to the traditional practice.

Many funeral homes are overwhelmed with the number of bodies coming in for preparation and burial and may not be able to handle services on time, in which case the body may be transported to another funeral home that does have the capacity or frozen to preserve the corpse.

Funeral homes may also opt to have services virtually as gatherings are still not permitted in many towns and cities, however, depending on the local restrictions, some family members may be able to hold funeral and visitation services in-person so long as CDC guidelines for social distancing and proper mask-wearing continue to be followed.

Is There Any Special Funeral Handling for People Who Died Because of Coronavirus?

The CDC has released funeral guidelines for preparing a body during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus spreads through water droplets, which means that while exhalation of breath is not a significant concern after death, there is still a lot that is not known about how the virus spreads.

The virus may spread through touch contact before the body is prepared, which is common in some traditions. Individuals should avoid kissing, hugging, or touching the deceased, and it is recommended that everyone remains spread 6-feet apart and takes part in everyday precautions such as regular handwashing and proper wearing of masks.

For further guidelines, families should contact their local healthcare authority and funeral directors.

Funeral directors should refer to the local healthcare authority and CDC guidelines for gatherings and proper handling of the bodies.

What Are the Risks for Funeral Directors During COVID-19?

Funeral directors should take extreme caution when preparing the body of someone who had confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Shrouding or washing the body should be avoided as the virus may spread through water droplets.

Scientists do not currently know how long the virus can last in a deceased body, but there is a significant risk to the individual embalming the body twofold:

  • Mental Health

Funeral directors are currently undergoing a significant increase in workload from coronavirus deaths, and a variety of other stressors related to financial or safety concerns. Many funeral directors must refuse bodies because they lack the capacity for the number of bodies coming in for preparation and burial, and many more await in cold storage backlogs.(2)

“New York City experienced a harrowing wave of fatalities as it became the global epicenter of the virus in the spring, with 17,507 confirmed virus deaths between March 14 and June 18. At the peak of the pandemic in early April, about 800 people died in a single day. […] By the end of May, the pier held a total of 2,137 bodies — 1,468 in long-term storage and 669 in refrigerated trailers, the medical examiner’s office said.”

—  Sharon Otterman

Mental health and quality of sleep may deteriorate for these individuals, leading to a loss of snap judgment and bouts of poor decision making. Burnout is also a significant risk factor for funeral home directors during the COVID-19 pandemic as many find that their work is negatively impacted by the lack of ability to help families of the deceased, combined with the volume of bodies that must be prepared in the face of the pandemic.

  • Proximity Risk

Scientists know very little about the risk to funeral directors from COVID-19 deaths because they are still discovering ways the virus transmission works. We understand that the virus is transmitted through water droplets, which means that funeral directors should take extreme care when embalming and preparing bodies that are either confirmed or suspected to have had COVID-19. Washing and shrouding bodies should be avoided whenever possible.

Additionally, funeral directors should take extreme care to practice proper handwashing, mask-wearing, and always wear gloves in the proximity of bodies during this time. While these are normal practices for preparing bodies, it is important to remember these qualities and pursue them with greater care, even when mental health is considered.

How to Handle the Belongings of a Person Who Has Died from COVID-19

While touch is not considered to be a significant factor of transmission, it is still considered a small risk. The belongings of an individual with COVID-19 may be retrieved, depending on local laws and restrictions, from the hospital or place of residence with the guidance of their healthcare authority. These items must be allowed to sit in the open air for a minimum of 7 days, then properly sanitized.

Proper sanitization includes wiping surfaces down with antibacterial cleaners or wipes, disinfecting the item of germs. CDC guidelines must be followed in this process for anything the individual was in contact with, which can be found on the CDC website.

Keep in mind that electronic devices may not be able to be sprayed or wiped down with disinfectant products as these may erode the surface of the device.

After disinfecting belongings, you should wash your hands for 20 seconds with proper amounts of soap and water or use an antibacterial hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content.

References

  1. Forbes
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2020/04/21/how-the-pandemic-is-killing-the-death-business/?sh=2f1b55a96c64
  2.  The New York Times
    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/26/nyregion/frozen-bodies-coronavirus-brooklyn.html