While losing a loved one at any time is difficult, planning a funeral has been made even more complicated as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to halt gatherings.
With the statewide stay-at-home measure aimed at stopping the virus spread in place, Denver-area funeral homes are working to find innovative ways to help clients celebrate their family member’s or friend’s life without a public service.
Many funeral homes, such as Dignity Memorial, are offering a livestream of funeral services so that more than immediate family members can view the event.
“Grief is an emotion with a lot of tears and hugging and hand-holding,” said Matt Whaley, Denver’s market director for Dignity Memorial. “It has been really, really different for us in the last few weeks.”
Dignity Memorial, which has several funeral homes around in the metro area, operates Olinger Crown Hill in Wheat Ridge, Olinger Chapel Hill in Centennial, Olinger Andrews Caldwell Gibson in Castle Rock and Olinger Funeral, Cremation and Cemetery — Highland in Thornton, along with other locations in Denver, Aurora and Thornton.
Parker and Elizabeth Funeral Home in Parker and the Horan & McConaty chain of funeral homes have also adopted the livestream approach.
While some people have chosen this option, more have decided to simply postpone the memorial.
“A lot of the time what we see is cremation. And that gives people the ability to put it off and have a service when we’re all back to where we can be together,” said Lloyd Harwood, general manager at Parker and Elizabeth Funeral Home.
For more traditional burials, some families are opting to hold an immediate, private burial but plan for a public memorial once the order has been lifted, said Michael Wellensiek, director of operations for Horan & McConaty. Postponing can have its own difficulties, however.
“No memorial at the time of death postpones grief,” he said. “To have a little finality in that moment is important.”
Horan & McConaty has seven locations including Arvada, Centennial, Lakewood and Thornton.
Wellensiek worries that some families will delay a public service only to eventually decide not to go through with one at all “and miss that opportunity to have people come support them,” he said.
“For people who are not allowed to have a ceremony, it’s difficult,” he said. “They’re going through the grieving process.”
To help lessen the financial burden for the families who wish to have a private service now and a public service later, Horan & McConaty will only charge for one of these events, Wellensiek said.
Many family members of veterans are also choosing to delay the memorial services for their loved ones at Fort Logan National Cemetery, administrative officer David Roberts said.
“A lot of our volunteer support agencies that provide honors are not coming out for services,” he said.
For veteran services at the cemetery, honors can include traditions like a firing party or an honor bell. The cemetery is continuing to accommodate burials and is cataloging the families who wish to have a memorial with honors later.
The industry has changed in other ways too, Harwood said. Instead of folks coming into the funeral home to make arrangements, they’re asking to do so virtually, he said.
Funeral homes, as a business deemed essential under the state order, are also working to keep their employees safe as they continue to come to work. That means social distancing, avid cleaning and frequent hand-washing for the employees.
“The staff has a level of fear,” Wellensiek said. “They’re dealing with deceased people who died from the virus and family members who were maybe exposed.”
The employees — like those in many industries — are under added stress due to the virus, he said.
“We’ve really focused on also caring for our team,” he said. “Our biggest concern is if our staff gets sick, then we can’t serve the public.”
While funeral homes have been forced to change their policies, services and interactions with clients, most agree that the families they work with have handled the additional hardship very well.
“They’re frustrated like all of us that we can’t open these services up to more people,” Whaley said. “But families have been extremely understanding.”
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