The changing face of funerals in the COVID-19 crisis

Stewart McLean says hugs and hand pats are important in grief, but can’t be supplied right now.

In normal days, Stewart McLean would sit right next to a grieving client at his funeral home, but now a table separates him from people he’d like to be able to comfort. (Eric J. Welsh/ The Progress)

Stewart McLean says the funeral business has been forced to change how it operates drastically thanks to COVID-19.

The co-owner of McLean’s Funeral Services (along with Theresa Yates) in Chilliwack says the human element of what they do has been dramatically reduced, and they can’t comfort grieving families the way they normally would because of social-distancing rules.

“Unfortunately, almost everything we’re doing with families right now is by email, which makes it very difficult,” McLean said. “There’s not that personal connection right now, and you can’t offer support to a family because it’s so disconnected.

“Normally, families come in and you give them a hug or hold their hand or whatever they needed, and you can’t do that right now. Human touch is a huge thing in this business, just being able to pat somebody’s hand is so important at a time like this.”

McLean is used to having an open door policy. That’s been replaced by locked doors.

“We’ve got signs outside that say, ‘Due to COVID-19, if you need funeral arrangements, please call us at our phone number,” he noted.

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But people still need to come to the funeral home for specific things like picking up a death certificate or an urn.

When they do, they arrive at a pre-arranged time and head into a room specially rearranged to fit social distancing guidelines.

“I had to reorganize it so there’s a table set up the long way with a chair for me at one end and a chair for one person at the other end, and anyone who comes with them has to sit off to the side somewhere.

“So even with that, the disconnection is there at the worst possible time for a family.

“And after they leave, you disinfect everything that they might have touched.”

With churches abiding by the same social-distancing regulations, funerals themselves have become strange affairs.

“If there’s a service, it’s limited to no more than 10 immediate family members, and even those 10 people have to be distanced in the church,” McLean explained. “They’re already under so much stress, and now this.”

Where possible, families are opting to delay services as long as possible.

“They’re putting their grieving on hold,” McLean said.

But further complicating matters is the choice of cremation or burial. With cremation, a service can wait because remains can be stored.

A burial won’t wait until the summer, so the families need to have them done now.

“And they’ll have to go back to it whenever, and have a memorial mass that they can invite everyone too,” McLean said. “So a few months down the road they have to go back to the grieving process that they’ve already been through.”

While life is stressful for grieving families, it is also stressful for McLean and his staff.

They have to assume that any body arriving at the funeral home carries COVID-19, which means taking ‘universal precautions.’

That means a barrier gown, mask and glove.

“Even a face shield, if we feel we need it, because we have to protect ourselves,” McLean said. “We are considered an essential and critical service, and we have no choice but to be here and I’m okay with it because it’s part of the profession. In a situation like this know you know you just have to steel up your spine, dig in and deal with it.”

With a background in counselling, McLean has had some comforting words for the five staff members in his building.

“Theresa and I are their support,” he laughs. “We’re the ones who walk them through things and fortunately we know them really well. I keep saying to them, ‘Remember who we’re doing this for. It’s not for us. It’s for the families we’re working with.

“It’s very difficult to have to pull back this way, but we don’t have any choice.”

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