Funeral home staff overwhelmed by waves of COVID-19 deaths

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(CBS) – Dutch Nie, who runs a small funeral home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recounts the flood of calls from grieving families as the first wave of COVID-19 hit the U.S. last year. “In March and April, we saw a rise in the number of deaths right off the bat. Those were 18- and 20-hour days. It was difficult to turn off your brain.”

Since then, the startling death toll from the coronavirus has put an even greater strain on many funeral homes across the U.S., with the daily number of fatalities topping 4,000 per day in January. Roughly 390,000 Americans have died in total, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now projects up to 90,000 more deaths in the next three weeks alone. 

As a result, funeral homes, crematories and other “last responders” are seeing soaring demand for their services, especially in coronavirus hotspots such as Los Angeles. A National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) survey found that more funeral homes are cremating bodies instead of hosting casket burials, a quicker service amid the rising death toll. 

The need for funeral services means “sometimes not getting home and doing 20 hours of work and three hours of sleep,” Hari Close, who owns a funeral service in Baltimore, Maryland, told CBS MoneyWatch.

That is taking a physical and emotional toll. Funeral home directors said they’ve had to put on a comforting smile in front of families while, behind the scenes, employees were scrambling to find personal protective equipment and mourning the COVID-19 deaths of colleagues. 

The increase in deaths has been particularly tough on family-owned funeral homes in small or rural communities because such businesses typically have fewer workers, funeral directors said.

“We’re normally doing like 250 services a year, and we did 122 cases more than we normally do in 2020,” Close said. 

Richard New of Southern Oaks Funeral Home in Somerset, Kentucky, said his staff noticed the jump in families needing funeral services last October. Southern Oaks normally serves 300 or so families, New told CBS affiliate WYMT, but the funeral home handled nearly 400 funerals last year.

Nie, 56, said the onslaught means that some members of his eight-person team have often had to work 10-hour shifts on weekends. Efforts to hire more part-time and temporary workers were foiled because people didn’t want to leave their homes due to the health risks. 

“During the pandemic, there were firms that were doing their yearly call volume in three months,” Nie said. “It’s been all hands on deck and it’s been overwhelming.”

Funeral directors also said the pandemic has forced them to embrace technology and become more creative in how they interact with grieving families.

Traditional in-person funeral services, in which family members gather to mourn, have been mostly stopped due to social-distancing mandates. That also means loved ones cannot visit a funeral home office to make arrangements.  

Funeral homes that were once hesitant to go virtual are now offering video-conference meetings and virtual tours of their showrooms. More funeral homes are posting prices on their website and taking payments over the phone. Almost half of NFDA members began live-streaming funeral services in 2020, the industry survey said. 

“I’ve never been a real advocate for high-tech, but last year my staff finally convinced me so we do livestreaming now,” Close said. “We can do it from our phones and at different locations.”

Jones-Wynn Funeral Homes and Crematory in Douglasville, Georgia, installed webcams for live-streaming last year, said its president, Ellen Wynn McBrayer. But the staff also continued to meet families at their homes, often on the front porch to lower risks of catching the virus.

“It has been an emotional journey to figure out how to care for families and their broken hearts,” McBrayer said. “It’s even harder during the pandemic because there are so many restrictions, and people can’t come together like they used to.”

Jones-Wynn’s busiest period came last year. While the long days have been exhausting, “No matter how hard this is, no matter how many extra hours, no matter how many extra details, it’s still not as hard as having to say goodbye to a loved one,” Jones-Wynn said.

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