Funeral home director John Dahl remembers when the gravity of COVID-19 felt heavy.
He was helping a family whom he’s known for years. His friend’s father-in-law died, so he was taking care of the funeral arrangements. Five days later, the man’s brother-in-law died. At the same time, the man’s wife was in the hospital, sick with COVID.
“We couldn’t tell her that she had lost her brother and dad,” the Billings funeral home director said.
Their funerals were held just about 10 days apart. One family, two deaths, three in the hospital with COVID.
Maybe no industry has been touched in the quite the same way as the funeral home directors. On one hand, most have seen an uptick in business as they’ve been called upon to prepare the bodies of people struck fatally with COVID. Yet business isn’t exactly robust as funerals have been scrubbed and gatherings have been pared back.
Funeral home directors have also been particularly vulnerable as they transport and prepare bodies infected with the disease, which is still transmittable even after death.
COVID hasn’t just changed the business until most are vaccinated, it’s likely changed how funerals and death will be treated in the future.
The death of a traditional funeral
Even as COVID has begun to subside, the effects of the disease are noticeable.
Funerals are still spread out with chairs farther apart. A year ago, broadcasting a funeral would have been odd, if not impossible. Today, with Facebook Live, FaceTime and a host of other apps, like Zoom, many are tuning into memorial services remotely, even if they’re in the same town.
The change has forced folks like Dahl and his staff to become part funeral planner and part videographer.
Dahl has become an expert at making sure the gas-powered generator is ready too, and there’s plenty of extension cord for laptops, wireless hot spots and tablets.
Cemeteries, sometimes in remote places, have become the new gathering place for funerals. He’s seen some of the worst Montana weather in the past year, when previously the ceremonies would be moved inside.
The funeral service itself has even changed. More families are opting for graveside services or outdoor events to remember loved ones. Visitation times have been extended for hours, as families ask friends and well-wishers to space out, Dahl said.
Dahl’s downtown Billings chapel used to hold in excess of 100 people for memorial gatherings and funerals. Since COVID, those gatherings have been limited to 25 people at a time, with families spreading out in the chapel among smaller rooms and gathering spaces.
All of the things a person would expect from a funeral — the tears, hand-holding, hugging — were mostly curtailed.
“People are not only dying by themselves, but the family would be with us at the hospital when they died,” Dahl said. “They used to be with us as the family members were dressed and casketed. They used to want to be there with their loved ones to hold a vigil.”
COVID isn’t just a logistical challenge — it’s a biological one, too.
Dahl went through the mortuary science program in the early 1990s. He learned about the precautions you have to take with a communicable disease when he dealt with people who died from HIV/AIDS. For him, COVID was a reminder of those days.
He and his fellow funeral directors followed the safety protocols for infectious diseases.
“We were as concerned as doctors and nurses about getting safety equipment,” Dahl said.
Just because the person died doesn’t mean the threat of COVID disappeared.
There were webinars and communications from state and national associations.
“We were all scared, honestly,” Dahl said. “How bad is it going to be? I had the responsibility for the safety of my staff, but then I also got to thinking about my family. God watched over us and took care of us.”
Dahl’s definition of lucky is relative. Every funeral director on his staff, himself included, caught COVID-19. A few lost a sense of smell, but none lost their life.
“We used protective equipment. We suited up like we were going to the moon. That’s how we were trained,” Dahl said.
The changing look of funerals
It’s hard to imagine the process of death, dying and grieving changing as much as it has as rapidly. Groups of people huddled in a hospital or bedroom have been replaced by sometimes no one at all during the moment of death. And funerals have changed.
Gone are the post-burial gatherings that used to take place in church basements or at favorite bars where potlucks, ham sandwiches and potato casserole were served.
Dahl said one of the growing trends is boxed lunches for graveside visitors. The process has grown organically —families wanting to share a meal but unable to congregate in large groups. Dahl said now many families prepare box lunches or favorite foods and distribute them as people drive away from the graveside at a cemetery. The new process allows families to greet mourners and to share food.
“From the very beginning, it’s always been the same: My families teach me what’s important and the best way for it to happen,” Dahl said. “We took for granted that we could gather. What the pandemic emphasizes is that we need to have a moment in time to celebrate life with family and friends.”
Business has changed
COVID hasn’t just changed the way funeral services are conducted or what precautions need to be taken before a body is prepared. It’s changed the very business itself.
Many funeral homes report some of the most business ever — the increase can be seen in statistics. For the first time since it was tracked, the state of Montana had more deaths than births.
“There is a greater volume of logistics,” Dahl said.
Funeral home directors across the country continue to be busy. A colleague in New York with whom he was arranging a funeral said their business had tripled in the past year.
But Dahl has had to help families deal with the loss in different ways. He explained that the communal nature of funerals was part of the grief process and acted as a sort of therapy. Now, with fewer people and sometimes no ceremony at all, grief is changing.
“Our grief process is going to take years and is compounded because we haven’t had the communal sharing of grief,” Dahl said. “I am recommending to people that they reach out to a professional counselor, clergy and family.”
For some who are struggling in their grief, Dahl’s recommendations have changed. One of the most common suggestions: Write a love letter to a loved one who recently died.
“Write it all down. Let it go,” Dahl said. “Dad said that we were not unfamiliar with grief, we’re just unfamiliar with its intensity.”