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SC News

SC funeral home directors reimagined services during COVID

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Thelisha Eaddy
/
SC Public Radio
FILE - A graveside service in Berkeley County in February, 2021.

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — On a balmy October afternoon, Kay E. Woodward stood outside Spartanburg's J.W Woodward Funeral Home with an urn in the crook of her elbow and another arm outstretched towards a family.

A familiar sight for a family business, the oldest Black business in the city, has been a community mainstay for over a hundred years. Thomas Massey, one of the funeral directors, joined her outside not too long after.

In Pickens County, miles away in another community crutch that has been around for nearly a century, Chris Robinson, dressed in black and not a hair out of place, quietly rounded the corner in the Robinson Funeral Home. He had just come back from a funeral service.

Woodward, Massey, and Robinson have helmed funeral services and have always stood at the last stop.

In conversations about COVID-19, each described a two-year "fog." They talked about how they had to get creative with live streams and webcasts, what they did to help families mourn outside in tents, in newly-built open-air sites, beside gravesides — mixing grief with newer fixtures at a funeral: masks and distance.

But unlike last year, since each of their first confirmed COVID-19 funerals in April 2020, this year is different. There are vaccines, they said, and deaths have declined. And just when they thought things were starting to get better, it started all over again.

Steadily, while overseeing back-to-back services and urging members in Spartanburg and Easley, two COVID-19 hotspots in South Carolina, to mask up and vaccinate, they assumed a new role educating families about the importance of precautions and vaccinations and observing a new facet of how COVID-19 changed the process of grieving.

"I don't think we ever get tired of trying to educate," Woodward said.

CELEBRATING LIVES AND PROVIDING A MEANINGFUL SERVICE CHANGED FUNERAL WORKERS

Somewhere between 50 feet to 80 feet, that's the distance Woodward once sprinted from the back of the chapel to the front to stop people from hugging each other, a soft "no, no, no," not too far behind. Massey confirmed this.

"People would try to lean over and console each other," she said. "And you just cannot do that."

Woodward said that the family was escorted out and had an attendant to ensure people didn't go over to hug and shake hands or kiss the family. While she understood embracing in sadness was a natural instinct, there was a pandemic she couldn't ignore. "Sometimes we're probably not real popular," she said.

But the concern for safety is not amiss.

A February 2020 funeral service in Albany, Georgia, had become the epicenter of a big coronavirus cluster. There were nearly 500 confirmed coronavirus cases in just two months, and by April 1, 2020, at least 29 coronavirus-related deaths were reported around the town in Dougherty County.

In September of this year, Spartanburg County had the highest hospitalization rate in the U.S, with a rate of 38 COVID patients per 100 beds, reported The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, Robinson had signs put up with safety precautions and said he was in touch with healthcare professionals in nearby nursing homes and regional hospitals. Robinson served three locations, one in downtown Easley, one on Powdersville Road, and one in Clemson.

At its height during August and early September this year, he said that he observed the mental drain on people. "Healthcare professionals had to become family and said goodbye to patients because loved ones could not enter the hospital," he said.

He saw anger, of course, but he understood that too. "It came from not being able to be by their loved ones' sides," he said. "Not knowing." He knew families who had members who were doing well only for their health to take a turn for the worse the very next day.

Since each of the municipalities had different guidelines, with Clemson, for instance, operating under a mask mandate until Oct. 18, Robinson talked to families and discussed how they wanted to conduct funerals and noticed an increase in private visitations.

He said the funeral home and its staff had to remain cautious to keep everyone safe through it all.

"The virus is still out there, and you have to be careful of who might have been exposed," he said.

Indeed, discussing precautions and safety protocols with a grieving family is an interaction that grief researchers have tried to understand.

Disenfranchised grief, where family members feel shortchanged when they're unable to grieve the traditional way, could lead to complicated grief — a state in which one is locked in perpetual sorrow and unable to heal, often leading to concerning, more dangerous behavior.

The changing face of grief has propelled the funeral industry to go beyond its roots in face-to-face interaction and community healing.

Last year at the beginning of the pandemic, Robinson, who is associated with the National Funeral Directors Association, an advocacy and education organization, said that the NFDA sent letters to the federal government to prepare for a supply of personal protective equipment.

Throughout the summer, the organization advocated for the expansion of PPE beyond healthcare settings. This, he said, helped funeral homes cope with the pandemic.

Recently, Robinson attended an NFDA convention in Nashville, Tennessee, the first in-person event for the organization in quite some time. Naturally, he said, the pandemic had changed the way funeral directors lived their own lives.

Thomas Massey agreed. As a young man, Massey was taught to shake people's hands, and it was a gesture that was second nature to him as a funeral director, he said. But when the delta variant caught Spartanburg in its grip, Massey wondered how to keep himself safe.

"I just cannot hug anyone anymore," he said.

Perhaps this came from a different kind of isolation, Woodward wondered, one that was different from the type of isolation experienced by those whose life had come at a screeching halt and were forced to confine themselves in their homes.

Funeral home workers never stopped working through the pandemic. "We do not have a situation where we can work from home," she said. Nothing is the same, and no one can do things the same way, she said.