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Finding a new way to grieve

Funeral directors in southeast Iowa have found new, creative ways to hold services and visitations even in the face to limitations due to the coronavirus outbreak

Union file photo

While families have continued to hold private services, large public celebrations have had to be postponed due to limitations related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Union file photo While families have continued to hold private services, large public celebrations have had to be postponed due to limitations related to the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to safety and health concerns surrounding coronavirus-related deaths, funeral directors across Iowa are also looking for ways to continue to provide support and serve families experiencing loss during the pandemic.

Charlie Yoder, president of the Iowa Funeral Directors Association (IFDA), said the hardest part of working through the COVID-19 outbreak has been having conversations with families about the ten person limit for gatherings.

“We can only have a limited number of people in our building. With me and a minister, that’s only eight family members,” Yoder said.

Though services are continuing, public celebrations have been put off indefinitely. Even for the smaller private services, funeral directors have had to come up with new ways to accommodate larger families who may exceed the ten person limit.

“Funeral homes are coming up with all these creative ideas in ways the community can show support for grieving families. Some have done drive-by visitation where family members have stood outside or along the street and everybody else stayed in their car but had a chance to talk to families from a safe distance. Most funeral homes are doing whatever they can,” Yoder explained.

The association president, who also runs Powell Funeral Homes in Kalona, said some things he has done to help families through this time is hold several visitations so family members could come in groups while still abiding by public health precautions.

“For one family, we went past their church building to get to the cemetery and their church family was all in cars, sitting along the route. They all had their lights on, just to wave at the family. It was extremely emotional and very meaningful that people were still able to show support and love. A few of them were holding signs to let the family know they’re here for them,” Yoder said.

The association president also said allowing families to say goodbye to loved ones is “so important,” and a “big portion of the grieving process.”

Suzanne Gebel, executive director of IFDA, added that some funeral directors across the state have turned to Zoom and Skype or even Facebook Live to be able to share services with people who are not able to physically attend.

“Funeral directors in Iowa have become very knowledgeable very quickly to allow people to participate in services from afar for everyone’s safety,” Gebel said, “They’ve become very creative in finding ways to take care of the living while honoring the dead.”

Marty Beenblossom, funeral director for Jones & Eden Funeral Home in Washington, said he feels “horrible” for families suffering through loss at this moment, especially because they cannot receive the usual forms of comfort and support from their community.

“My biggest hope is that even though we’re having small services now and holding the public gathering later, even if it’s a couple months down the road, once this all blows over, I hope the community still comes out and shows support for the family,” Beenblossom said.

Beenblossom, who has now dealt with three deaths related to the coronavirus, said the outbreak has been “a bit nerve wracking” for funeral directors, but dealing with deaths due contagious diseases is a part of each funeral directors’ schooling.

“I feel very confident that we have been trained on how to handle this,” Beenblossom said.

Beenblossom also added hospitals and nursing homes have been proactive in alerting him about a death due to the coronavirus.

“They tell us right away on the first phone call, they’ve been fantastic to deal with,” Beenblossom said.

Funeral directors, who usually wear gowns, masks, eye shields and gloves, are encouraged to continue to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and take extra precautions when dealing with coronavirus cases.

In addition to his usual gear, Beenblossom added he’s also taken to wearing older clothing that can be washed immediately.

Yoder explained that while the virus still is being studied, there’s still a possibility for the virus to be passed to others even after someone has passed.

“We’re still finding out about this virus. It will live outside the body and on the deceased. If the body has been embalmed, it can live on the body several days after,” Yoder explained.

Other opportunities for the virus to spread from a deceased individual is if air from the lungs is exhaled as a body is being moved.

“We’re asking families not to touch the deceased. We have to really limit what can be touched,” Yoder added.

But as PPE continues to be in short supply as the country combats the virus outbreak, the association is pushing for funeral directors to also be considered a priority group to receive equipment.

“We’re not there yet. Out east, there is a problem with a shortage of PPE. In the state, we kind of know where our supply is at. The association kind of acts as a clearing house. If a funeral home needs supplies, the association will help find it for directors and funeral homes,” Yoder explained.

“We don’t want to bring it back home to our families nor to our staff. If the staff becomes infected, we can’t be there to serve families,” Yoder added about the importance of providing PPE for funeral directors.