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The long goodbye

From planning socially-distanced funerals to determining how to safely transport the body of someone who died from COVID-19, the pandemic turned the funeral home industry on its head.

As the area’s coronavirus cases continue to shrink, funeral directors are opening up about the hurdles faced by families who lost someone during the height of the pandemic, many of which are only now getting to properly celebrate the lives of their loved ones.

A funeral, especially in the south, can often draw in hundreds of people as family and friends mourn the loss of a loved one. But social distancing and capacity restrictions made large funerals an impossibility throughout the pandemic. At times, funeral directors could only allow as few as 10 people at a service.

“It was difficult for their families because they felt like their loved ones deserved more,” Karen Dunkum of Dunkum Funeral Home in Buckingham said. “We felt like they deserved more, but our hands were tied.”

Most people are used to being able to go into a funeral home and explain exactly what they want their family member’s funeral service to look like. But for Dunkum and other funeral directors, the pandemic meant severe limitations to what they could offer.

“We didn’t have visitations. We didn’t have in-chapel church services. I think it was really difficult on families,” she said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Dunkum said no one knew exactly how the virus spread or if it could be contracted from a deceased individual. At first, those who passed away due to the coronavirus were either cremated or given a direct burial shortly after death.

Dunkum and other funeral home employees were, at times, scared to be in their line of work during the pandemic. Some of the business’ at-risk employees did not work for some time.

“Everybody was scared. We didn’t know what we were facing,” she said.

When the vaccine came out, Dunkum and her staff jumped at the chance to get inoculated.

“We decided the first chance we had to take it, we would get it.”

With most churches not allowing for funeral services inside, most families, according to local funeral directors, opted for graveside services for their loved ones.

According Dayton Puckett, owner and manager of Puckett Funeral Home in Farmville, the number of cremations requested by families increased tremendously during the pandemic.

Puckett said many families who typically elect to bury their loved ones opted for cremation in 2020. Industry leaders are wondering if the trend will continue post pandemic.

The trend, if it continues, could be a big financial hit for funeral homes. While a traditional funeral with a burial costs roughly $10,000, a cremation averages just $3,000.

“That could affect a lot of funeral homes,” Puckett said.

Denita Dupee, owner and funeral director of Dupee Funeral Home in Charlotte County, said her business’ operations changed drastically during the pandemic. In addition to having to follow state mandates on funeral capacity, Dupee could only allow two people to come to the business to make funeral arrangements. Several emails from the state and health department came in each week instructing directors about the COVID guidelines. Dupee listened in on many conference calls to learn what other establishments were doing.

While Dupee did offer families the chance to do a visitation, such events were typically limited to a viewing only rather than a traditional wake.

Funeral services, she explained, had to be much shorter than normal, and oftentimes speakers and music had to be limited in order to keep the ceremony under an hour.

Carl Eggleston, mortician and owner of the Oliver and Eggleston Funeral Establishment in Farmville, said the bodies of COVID-19 victims had to be treated a little differently in order to ensure safety, including separating those bodies from others in the parlor.

Eggleston said he had some customers early on in the pandemic who were told by other funeral homes they needed to cremate their loved ones because they were not comfortable embalming the body.

Eggleston used outdoor services to his advantage in order to provide families another option to cremation. Other times, ropes were put up or a veil was placed on the individual in order to prevent funeral guests from getting too close or touching the deceased.

Some families, Eggleston noted, decided to limit viewings to family only or just a few friends. Others even elected not to advertise funeral services in the paper in order to avoid crowds.

Eggleston, too, experienced an increased demand for cremation services. While many family members wanted the process to be over quickly in the form of a cremation, others would still want a traditional burial. When families did not agree, it could cause tension during the process.

Jacquelyn Reid, funeral director and vice president of Bland-Reid Funeral Home in Farmville, said families who opted for a viewing at the height of the pandemic required all guests to be screened and masked before entering. The funeral home also saw an increase in demand for chapel services as most churches were not allowing individuals inside.

With churches temporarily shuttered and strict mandates in place dictating how many people could be present during a funeral, many families were not able to give their loved ones the service they desired with all friends and family present. In fact, many families chose to hold off any sort of memorial services for their loved ones until a day when more people could be present.

For many, that day has arrived. In recent weeks, as coronavirus cases slowed to a crawl in most of the region and social distancing/mask mandates dissolved. Families are now getting together to properly celebrate and honor the life and legacy of the deceased.

While some residents are opting for celebrations of life in the form of cookouts or family gatherings in the backyard, others are choosing to hold more traditional memorial services at their local church as more and more places of worship reopen to the public.

Rev. Barry Vassar of Fitzgerald Memorial Baptist Church in Cumberland said he’s had some families request to hold memorial services for their loved ones as the anniversary of the family member’s death approaches.

He believes a final goodbye in the form of a memorial service or celebration will give many people the closure they need.

“There’s a lot of folks who have not had that door shut or been able to work through it,” he said. “It’s important for them to get some sort of closure.

Rev. Susie Thomas of Farmville United Methodist Church said Farmville UMC has had two memorial services in its sanctuary so far this summer for people who passed during the pandemic. More services are scheduled for the near future.

“I think they did so because the church meant so much to their family member and to them, and they wouldn’t have felt the same degree of closure had they not been able to hold the service in our sanctuary.”

Davis Mowery, a  former band director at Randolph-Henry High School in Charlotte County, passed away in April of 2020, but his obituary was advertised only this past week. His memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, July 17, at St. Andrews Anglican Church in Appomattox.

Davis’ wife, Carolyn Mowery, said family and friends weren’t satisfied with holding such a small funeral during the pandemic.

Saturday’s celebration of life will give family, friends and former students a chance to celebrate Davis’ life and keep his memory alive.

“It’s going to be an upbeat, joyous occasion.”