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Phillip Tutor: Death, funerals and compassion during the pandemic

K.L. Brown Funeral Home (copy)

K.L. Brown Funeral Home owner Craig Bodiford, pictured in August 2019 when the funeral home reopened. Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star

The cruelty of this global pandemic is so profound, so inhumanely sinister, that its touch isn’t limited to those it kills. It’s even cruel to the families of those who die from something other than COVID-19.

Consider how Jon Smith spent Tuesday.

Smith is general manager of Gray Brown-Service Mortuary in Anniston. I called him before lunch. In a few hours, he said, he was meeting with a family to plan a funeral that in normal times would likely fill a chapel’s pews. 

But these aren’t normal times. Alabama state guidelines against the spread of the disease forbid public gatherings of 25 or more people. Families must decide who attends and who stays home. 

Smith’s workaround: “I’m going to encourage them to have a morning time and an afternoon time,” he said.

Consider, too, how Craig Bodiford, owner of K.L. Brown Funeral Homes in Jacksonville and Anniston, reacted when I called him Tuesday morning. We talked about a funeral home’s role, of compassion for clients, of the extreme measures being taken. 

“My heart breaks for every family we have to tell this to,” Bodiford said. “Some people didn't think public gatherings applied to funerals, but they are public gatherings. My heart breaks because there could possibly be family members who couldn’t attend in person. I just can’t imagine how hard that is for them.”

From a purely business sense, funeral homes are fortunate they’re dissimilar to restaurants and small businesses; the pandemic hasn’t endangered their economic survival. Deaths, like sunrises, are constant. Burials are essential parts of life, pandemic or not.

What has changed is how they operate. 

Virtual funeral arrangements — either by video conferencing or telephone. Video-taped or live video funeral services, which most funeral homes already offered. An overwhelming amount of time spent disinfecting facilities after services: door knobs, hand rails, chairs, tables, any flat surface. “We do a lot more detailed cleaning,” Bodiford said.

But nothing compares to the social-distancing requirements — 6 feet between people — and limitations on public gatherings. When Bodiford says his heart breaks for his clients, that’s why.

“Our families have made some really (tough decisions),” he said. “It’s been rough on them. But our family members have been great about dealing with us. They understand it is not the most ideal situation, but they know it’s not our fault.”

Plus, “I don’t know who they’ve been around and they don’t know who I have been around.” It’s true even in the South’s Bible Belt, where traditional funeral rites are engrained, that handshakes and hugs and the close-quarter sharing of tears are now taboo.

Bodiford cautions his clients against the “misinformation” that’s clouding America’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, his main message being one of safety — for families and his staff — and compassion. 

Speaking of the scourge of “misinformation” surrounding the novel coronavirus, there are things the National Funeral Directors Association wants you to know.

First, the Department of Homeland Security considers funeral professionals “critical infrastructure workers.” We should, too.  

Second, the NFDA says it’s not aware of any state requiring cremation for the remains of a person who died from a communicable disease.

Third, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “People should consider not touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19,” even though “there may be less of a chance of the virus spreading from certain types of touching, such as holding the hand or hugging after the body has been prepared for viewing.”

Neither Bodiford nor Smith sound exasperated; I’m surprised. But who could blame them if they did? The speed of the disease’s spread and the effects on their profession are astonishing. “This is just so new,” Smith said.

And then, the families. And the decisions they face.

Do they have an indoor ceremony and a graveside service? Or only one?

Do they delay the funeral until the public-gathering limitations are lifted? 

Do they split larger services into multiple gatherings?

Do those limitations make them consider cremation?

There is no consensus, no right answer. Common it is, Smith and Bodiford say, for families to forego indoor services during the pandemic and select a small graveside service, with a larger memorial event planned for when the limitations end.

It is, as Smith said, just all so new.

“It’s difficult,” he said, “but I think families are taking it in stride. Everybody has a common goal of getting past this.”

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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