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Funeral directors, mourners confront new reality during virus

Peter Moloney works from home assisting families with

Peter Moloney works from home assisting families with final arrangements for loved ones who have died.  Credit: Peter Moloney

ALBANY — No funeral ceremonies. No honor guard for veterans. No hugs to comfort the grieving.

It's the new way to mourn the dead, thrust upon us by the COVID-19 virus.

“You can’t push ‘pause’ on grief,” said Peter Moloney, co-owner of the Moloney Funeral Homes with seven locations on Long Island.

The Moloney Funeral Homes pitched a large tent at its Ronkonkoma facility to provide a place to gather while still using social distancing of 6 feet apart. 

Funeral home directors deal in grief every day, but not like this. Families have lost loved ones who were hospitalized or quarantined away from them for weeks.

Then they go to a funeral home and find yet more restrictions. Moloney said he is now handling the funeral for a 90-year-old man whose spouse hasn’t seen him for a month.

The toughest restriction may be on hugs.

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“There is a tremendous value in a hug,” Moloney said. “Part of the process is to be able to come together as a family … to feel close to others, especially at a time of loss.

“The community is completely understanding, though,” Moloney said. “They get it and realize this is unprecedented. We have never had to deal with this and I and my family have been in funeral services since 1933. We never had to deal with this, ever.”

Another funeral home removed prayer rails at chapels and made all services private along with policies that include “no personal contact (shaking hands, hugging, etc.),” according to a memo filed on the state Funeral Directors Association website from the Betz, Rossi, Bellinger & Stewart home in Amsterdam, northwest of Albany.

State Attorney General Letita James late Monday issued guidelines that included keeping gatherings to half of a home's capacity or 50 people, whichever is less, and those at gatherings should consider not touching the deceased if  the person died of the virus.

The New York State Funeral Directors Association said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office directed that “immediate family should be limited to as few as possible while maintaining social distancing.”

 The association said the Health Department recommends burials and cremations continue, “but if there is proper storage available and the family wishes to wait that is allowable.”

The crisis has prompted funeral homes to be creative in following government restrictions while serving families and protecting their employees. One or two sick or quarantined employees can close down a funeral home, which is still often owned by a family, and a family tradition.

M.A. Connell Funeral Home in Huntington Station, for example, is limiting visitations and gatherings to immediate family, defined as a spouse, children and grandchildren with no more than 10 people at a time. Instead of the traditional two sessions of two or more hours each, visitation is limited to one hour. Obituaries won’t include dates and times, according to the funeral home’s website.

The home strongly recommends that elderly mourners or those with immune deficiencies not attend services, or attend only briefly with just one or two others.

In Valhalla, “all funeral attendees are to remain in their vehicles,” states a March 18 memo to its funeral directors.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will only conduct services at the 142 veteran cemeteries nationwide for 10 or fewer people at each ceremony. “Larger groups will be asked to reduce their numbers or be refused services,” according to the department.

“In addition, families should know that volunteer honor guards may no longer be providing services at all cemeteries,” the department stated.

The Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Syracuse on March 18 told funeral directors: “In an attempt to protect the families of the deceased and the families of the staff, please avoid gatherings of any size at the cemeteries.”

At the Woodlawn Cemetery in Syracuse, “we will not allow any family member to be present for the final lowering of the casket or entombment into a crypt,” states a memo to funeral directors. Anyone confirmed to have had the virus will also have to be placed in an outer protective bag, at an additional cost of $350. Staff will also be using masks.

The state Division of Cemeteries issued a directive March 10 that called for embalming and other handling of the deceased who may have been infected by the virus must be handled as “potentially infectious remains.” 

The Fresh Pond Crematory in Brooklyn began “curb side services” to accept the deceased from funeral directors, according to a March 20 memo to the directors. “We will accept only direct cremations with no family present on the premises.”

“We certainly understand the need for families to grieve and for others to support those that are grieving. However, these are very precarious times,” stated the St. Lawrence County Funeral Directors Association. “We will encourage private services with limited attendance with social distances being advised … We are hopeful that this is only a short-term situation.”

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