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Comfort From 'Behind A Glass': How Funeral Homes Are Adjusting To Death During Pandemic

Funeral homes are limiting guest visitations to 10 people or less in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Daniel Fishel for NPR
Funeral homes are limiting guest visitations to 10 people or less in compliance with social distancing guidelines.

Although St. Louis-area hospitals haven't been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients compared to bigger cities, there are enough deaths to keep funeral homes busier than usual. Undertakers are among the essential workers that deal directly with bodies.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Marcus Harrison to learn about how morticians are organizing funerals and treating people who have died during the pandemic. Harrison is the general manager and embalmer at Austin Layne in north St. Louis County and said the center has seen COVID-19 victims daily.

“We went from not knowing what to expect to having a rapid increase and a lot of cases coming in with COVID-19,” Harrison said. “It’s an everyday occurance now.”

TheNational Funeral Directors Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said pandemic victims can be safely embalmed with routine procedures. But funeral directors are operating with overworked staff, avoiding older relatives and donning protective equipment when they retrieve bodies from homes and nursing facilities.

Harrison expressed concern over not receiving enough personal protective equipment. 

“Even though we have been listed by Homeland Security as first responders, when it comes down to receiving equipment — we weren’t receiving equipment,” he said. “We were on a list that was basically forgotten.”

He added that some funeral homes have now been able to access more gear, but it’s still been scarce. The fear comes from contracting the coronavirus from the body of a deceased person, or from the room, bedding and furniture when retrieving the body.

“It’s a dual evil.”

Conducting funeral services

In addition to embalming the bodies of the deceased, the funeral homes are navigating how to best serve the friends and family who want to have memorial services. 

Since large gatherings are prohibited at this time in compliance with social distancing guidelines, Harrison said other options have been direct burials, visitation services only or livestreams. 

“As a funeral director, we minister to their needs … and part of that is showing love, strengthening them, comforting them, and when you have to abide by the social distancing, you almost feel like you’re standing behind a glass trying to comfort these families,” he explained.

“Perhaps when they need a hug or a shoulder to cry on, we’re not able to really do that during this time and we feel horrible.”

Listen to the full discussion:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.