As new coronavirus spreads, metro area funeral homes adjust on the fly

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AURORA | As the modern world continues to grind to a standstill, Aurora residents continue to die from other causes, just like they did last week, last year and last decade.

And local funeral directors are continuing to cremate, embalm and lay to rest all manner of deceased denizens. But how those bodies are handled, and how grieving family members are permitted to interact with them, is quickly changing due to restrictions and protocols established to combat the spread of Covid-19.

“Funeral homes are equipped to handle a number of scenarios, but I think all bets are off right now with the access to supplies and the limitations with social distancing that are in place,” said Steffani Blackstock, executive director of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association.

Federal guidelines limiting gatherings of 10 or more people have resulted in an effective moratorium on large funerals and celebration of life ceremonies in Aurora for the foreseeable future, local funeral directors told The Sentinel.

Instead, directors are restricting gatherings to immediate family, postponing celebrations until later this year, or offering virtual funeral services through Facebook Live or Zoom.

“Right now it’s pretty much your only option outside of an old, traditional, Irish-style wake,” Sandra Abbott, director of Aurora’s Abbott Funeral Services, said of the virtual gatherings. “But that poses its own risks.”

Abbott said she’s had multiple clients opt for in-home wakes in recent weeks, though she said the gatherings can go against social distancing protocols and take custody of a body away from a funeral home – leaving families on the hook for anything that may happen to a cadaver while its transported to or from a private residence.

She added that the conundrum has been particularly difficult for area Catholics as churches have urged people to cut back on in-person masses and traditional funeral services in an effort to stem the spread of the pandemic.

“It’s made it very difficult for the Catholic community,” Abbott said.

Area Sikhs and Hindus are also facing difficulties with traditional end-of-life ceremonies, according to Abbott, who said many family members request to wash and dress a body after death, which requires precious personal protective equipment.

She said local funeral homes have been sharing equipment as needed, though she’s concerned a lack of equipment could become more problematic in the coming weeks.

“It’s been a real issue,” she said.

The state association of funeral directors instructs workers who are unable to obtain protective equipment, especially N95 respirators, to contact the state health department for help.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has urged death care workers to wear standard personal protective equipment and take standard precautions when handling an individual who was confirmed or suspected to have contracted Covid-19 prior to death. Blackstock said enhanced disinfecting measures are being used on the personal effects — clothing and jewelry — belonging to people suspected to have been in contact with an infected person shortly before their death.

She added that embalmers and funeral directors are uniquely prepared to combat the virus as the standard embalming process is designed to disinfect and rid a body of pathogens.

“It’s really business as usual in that respect,” Blackstock said. “Obviously families are not allowed in prep(aration) rooms so there’s minimal contact allowed with the deceased.”

Abbott, who’s also a certified embalming technician, said the process of applying anti-viral products to a body is standard procedure and dealing with diseased cadavers is a quotidian affair.

“We still deal with tuberculosis and hepatitis,” she said. “These diseases are common for us on an everyday basis, so we’re fairly used to it. This is not a new situation.”

In general, she said more clients are opting for cremation to give themselves greater flexibility to celebrate the life of a deceased family member later in the year.

She said several families have recently rescheduled planned celebration services for May and June.

Even before the virus arrived in the U.S. earlier this year, Blackstock said more Coloradans have opted for cremation in recent years due to the reduced cost, enhanced latitude and ability to transport and divide remains. She said about 70 percent of Coloradans are cremated.

Though there have yet to be any deaths caused by the virus in the counties that cover Aurora, Gov. Jared Polis said more deaths prompted by Covid-19 are inevitable.

Four people had died as a result of the virus in Colorado as of March 19. The state department of health reported that 277 people had tested positive for the virus, including 22 in Arapahoe County and another 10 in Adams County. Douglas County tallied 14 confirmed cases.

Mirroring businesses across the state, Blackstock said some funeral homes are cutting down on staff and conducting most appointments by phone in an effort to cut down on the spread. However, professionals are continuing to staff the businesses that are technically open 24-hours a day.

“Funeral homes are still there, and they’re still operating,” Blackstock said.

The federal government on Thursday agreed to include funeral directors and other death care workers as “essential personnel” amid the outbreak. Blackstock said she’s lobbying the Polis administration to get the same designation at the state level.

Andre Chernov, funeral director at Piece of Heaven funeral home in Aurora, said he will likely move his operation to appointment-only beginning on Monday. He said he lives about two minutes away from his location on East Mississippi Avenue and will continue to respond to calls for service day or night.

Abbott, who moved her business to east Aurora last fall, said she will continue to operate as people continue to die, though she’s disheartened the current pandemic may make losing a family member that much harder.

“The coronavirus for us is just kind of a twist in the story, but people pass from common causes every day and we still have to address those causes and people,” she said. “And it’s getting hard because as things shut down, they don’t have access to the normal grieving process, and it’s truly a shame.”