Catholic Funeral Homes Adjust to Virus Impact
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
February 4, 2021
DIOCESE—The coronavirus has affected businesses of many kinds, and some of the impacts have fallen on the funeral industry say Catholic owners of funeral homes in the diocese and by staff of the Catholic Cemeteries Office.
Two employees at the Catholic Cemeteries Office, located at Calvary Cemetery west of Rockford, contracted the virus in December, says Carol Giambalvo, CCCE, director.
“Now we are planning to redesign our office space, so that we have a ‘no contact’ meeting area,” she says. 
Before that is completed, funeral planning is being done remotely, with paperwork being scanned and sent to either the family of the deceased or to the funeral home.
One exception to the remote planning is when the family needs to purchase a grave space, she says.
Farther east, in Huntley, Carol DeFiore of DeFiore Funeral and Cremation Services says her business has been “a little bit busier this year than last. A very small percentage of that volume is COVID.”
Aside from the slight bump in volume, she says in the early weeks and months of the pandemic supplies were hard to get. That shortage has eased, she says, adding that “now you can get whatever you need, really.”
Services change
Services have changed to some extent, however, she says.
“We’re pretty lucky because a lot of the people we serve go to St. Mary (Parish)” in Huntley, DeFiore says. The church is large and 300 people can attend with social distancing.
Even so, area churches “try to keep people from congregating,” she says. Visitations are not allowed before the funeral Mass. 
“Usually we have the family (at the funeral home) for viewing and say prayers and then (travel) to the church,” she says.
Of course, families of the deceased want the funeral to be normal, she says, and the smaller number of mourners is “a tough pill for people to swallow.” 
But “people just don’t feel safe” enough to attend, and we hear a lot of ‘My kids won’t let me go.’ ”
Not coming is difficult particularly for older, traditionally-minded people, she says. 
“One of the things we have found (to be helpful) is just giving people permission not to come ... just because you don’t come doesn’t mean you don’t care.”
She and her staff invite those who can’t attend to leave a story or note on the funeral home’s website and may share ideas to help them show their sympathy. 
“We always talk about that during arrangements,” DeFiore says. “We tell them it’s going to be smaller than you think, but people will reach out to you in different ways. People have been incredibly creative in caring for families, sending stories and cards,” she says.
“I will say too, especially in March, we probably had some of the smallest, but also the most intimate, meaningful and personal (funerals),” she adds.
Families who couldn’t see their loved ones before death leaves DeFiore feeling “really horrible about that.” 
Such people “don’t need more of my stuff, but more of my time, more attention and (have) more questions. Everyone is so isolated ... ” she says.
Her funeral home provides “several programs” for families who are trying to adjust to their loss. A Christmas “Snowflake” program, a holiday service of remembrance, was always an in-person event. 
“This year we did it virtually,” DeFiore says. “We did a program, put it on a jump drive, and delivered it with snowflake cookies” to families served in 2020. “This year we had to adjust or not do it” at all, she says.
Reaching out creatively
How to provide a Valentine’s Day “Mending Hearts” program this year, she says, is “in the works.” The usual gathering allows those who have lost a spouse to connect to others who have been widowed. “We will do something,” she says. “We always try to have connections with our families after we provide those services.”
Although she says that few people ask to have the cremated remains of their loved one held until the mitigations are over, some intend to do a luncheon or a bigger venue celebration of life once it is summer.
Out of all of the challenges, DeFiore adds, “people really, really miss funeral lunches. The funeral kind of ends, and we thank everyone ... . It changes the end moment” when the family cannot invite them to lunch. When that might change remains unknown, she says.
“COVID or not, grieving doesn’t stop ... how important it is for people to grieve.”
There has been an increase in deaths, says Patrick R. Jones, Jr., pointing in particular to late October when COVID “started working its way through our local nursing homes.” 
Jones is the owner of Jones Funeral Home in Dixon and Mihm-Jones Funeral Home in Amboy. He’s the fourth generation of his family to work as a licensed funeral director with the firm. 
He graduated from St. Mary School in Dixon and now lives in Amboy.
Jones also says he had twice as many calls as usual in November and December and adds, “I would say for my competitors it appeared the same for them too.”
Luncheon gap
Funeral services, he says, “are definitely smaller. There have been a number of funerals where there should have been a church full (of mourners), but (had) just 20-25 people.
The get-togethers “help people through their time of loss,” and, like DeFiore, Jones cites the loss of funeral luncheons. 
“Having a meal together used to be a big part” of the funerals, he says, adding that it was a great social time also for the St. Patrick Catholic Women’s Club when they prepared and served the luncheons. He says he has seen how it affects people’s mental wellbeing when they can’t get together and socialize.
Visitations still take place, but they are “very in-and-out,” Jones says. People sign the book, visit the family, all while wearing masks. 
“Everyone does very well with social distancing, (but) it’s hard on people not to shake hands and hug, especially when people are suffering from a loss.”
St. Patrick Church in Amboy is “a pretty-good-sized church,” Jones says, so families from Walton and Harmon may have funeral Masses in Amboy. 
He says it has been harder to find organists to play at funerals, but that choir lofts are good, separated spaces away from everyone else. 
The priests have to make do without altar servers, lighting their own incense, for example, he says.
After a death, some families have come in to make arrangements and choose the casket, while a few do everything by telephone or internet. Some had to delay a funeral service until other family members were done with quarantine, holding it “as soon as we got everybody clear,” Jones says.
With cremated remains, he says, families “often wait until spring. Families are welcome to have the ashes (remain) here” until that time.
Online options grow
Funeral home, embalmer ...  and computer tech?
Dan Hougan, manager and licensed funeral director and embalmer at Fitzgerald Funeral Home in Rockford laughs at the idea of having the staff add to their titles during this time of pandemic. 
But indeed they have figured out how to add a connected tablet to receiving lines at visitations, allowing a spouse or other family member to “be” in the line and not only see visitors as they go by but also interact with them from the safety of their own home.
That service is offered “to every family,” Hougan says. “Some don’t want mom or dad displayed. Some families are a little bit more private. But it is offered at no cost.” 
And some families, he adds, provide their own setup to include a family member or two virtually.
Hougan and Stacey Bonacorsi, daily operations manager, reflect on what else is different at Fitzgerald’s since last March.
First of all is the increase in volume of deaths. “December was a record month for us,” Hougan says, and “2020 was a record overall.”
There also has been an increase in cremation, with families planning for services to be held when restrictions are lessened. 
Hougan guesses that around 50% of families whose loved ones are cremated are opting to wait a while for a service.
“I anticipate that now we’re in a different tier (in Illinois’s Region 1) some families may come forward, ready to do something,” he says. Others, he says, believe the pandemic mitigations “will be solved by summer.”
They’ve seen an increase in flowers and donations since COVID.
More graveside services
“We’ve also seen an increase of graveside services,” says Bonacorsi, “with immediate family present at the cemetery. Still, a lot of families are doing Masses and keep it private, because it is what mom and dad wanted, and they are respecting their (parents’) wishes.”
Floors at Fitzgerald are marked for social distancing. Hand sanitizer and single-use pens are available, and barriers are put in place for families who are not comfortable having visitors come near them. 
People enter and exit through different doors, and funeral home staff members monitor how many people come in. 
One large space has been made into two spaces, and other rooms have been opened to bring as many people as possible inside during the cold weather.
Fitzgerald has a program called “Soul Prints” that features the expertise of a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in grief. Her first year of services is free to Fitzgerald clients. 
Bonacorsi says the social worker has added an extra day to her schedule to serve families through a phone call or online and “a significant number come (to meet with her) in person” with a shield between her and the families who come in.
She also does follow-up letters and sends out websites to view and materials to read, Bonacorsi adds. 
“It’s been a really great help to all of our families, (some of whom) feel they’re being robbed of a proper funeral” with so few people there. “It’s another aspect of their grief.”
Fitzgerald’s has surprised some families whose loved ones died of COVID.
“There seems to be a misnomer that families can’t have open casket services if someone has died of COVID-19. Untrue,” says Hougan.
Using new verbal shorthand that has become familiar to many — CDC for Centers for Disease Control and PPE for Personal Protective Equipment — he explains, “We have to follow the CDC guidelines, don proper PPE for handling and transferring of the deceased.” 
A last touch
“Some of the families haven’t had physical contact with their loved ones,” Hougan adds. “It’s been touching for me personally to provide them the time they’ve been so desperately wanting for the last several months.”
He says professional standards make it safe for family members literally to reach out and touch their loved ones.
“The deceased do not have to be embalmed to be safe. ... so families can see and touch their loved ones before they are embalmed or cremated,” he says.
“We’ve tried to be as creative as possible to offer opportunities (and) give them as many options as possible. As a whole, funeral directors have had to come out of their shells a little and think outside the box.”
The National Funeral Directors Association, the CDC and the Winnebago County Health Department have all been very helpful this past year with the “panic of the unknown”, says Bonacorsi, who notes the need to respect everyone’s decisions and comfort levels.
We are, says Hougan, “very fortunate that our staff has not been affected by COVID. That speaks to the precautions and protocols in place to keep people safe ...
“I think (customers) are happy once they see what can be done, not just what can’t be done.”


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