On Monday, Rick Noel received a call from a potential client. Like many others, this client had just lost a loved one.
But there was something else: The loved one died at a local hospital and medical staff suspected that the deceased may have been infected with COVID-19, the highly contagious virus that has caused a global pandemic and forced communities worldwide to self-isolate.
The client said the test results for the virus had not come back yet.
“It’s difficult for us because we’re compassionate people, and we’d rather have these conversations in person. It’s definitely the worst if not close to the worst day of someone’s life,” Noel said.
Hear from Walton’s Funerals and Cremations owners Rick Noel and Kim Kandaras about not being able to host gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis. Reno Gazette Journal
Noel and co-owner, Kim Kandaras, own a cemetery and 15 funeral or cremation-related service sites in the Northern Nevada and Susanville area. Noel said the guidelines change day by day on how such services are supposed to operate.
How many people can gather. How the body can be prepared. Even how paperwork is handled.
It is definitely a challenge to create the same experience for clients that they might typically expect while the world faces a pandemic, the owners said.
“It is vital that people gather,” said Kandaras of the grieving process. “It’s really a healing time for people to share stories and hugs and have some laughs. It’s not all about loss, but about celebration too.”
Mark A. Flower, the manager of the Flower Funeral Home on Yonkers Avenue in Yonkers, talks about the constantly changing rules for wakes and burials. Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Few and far between
The daily routine at the workplace within the memorial service industry has changed greatly in the past week.
“We take over, and we have a pandemic on our hands,” said Noel, who purchased the Walton’s business with Kandaras in late November last year.
Noel’s 81-year-old father who’s been working in the industry, and still is, since the 1960s said he’s never seen anything like it.
Funeral industry leaders, who are accustomed to becoming emotional support aids for people enduring their worst days, are now having to discourage in-person contact all together.
Some business can be done over the phone. Many clients are conducting paperwork, making decisions and choosing details such as picking a casket or urn online.
“A lot of our clientele base is elderly, so sometimes they don’t know how to do anything online or it’s confusing to them,” said Taelor Harvey, office coordinator for Simple Cremation in Reno.
Fridays have been designated for visitors if they insist on visiting the office, though most don’t want to since they’re older and at a higher risk, Harvey said.
Jason Clark, the general manager of McFarlane Mortuary in South Lake Tahoe, said the mortuary has been live streaming many of the services online, allowing no more than 10 people to physically be at each service, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the virus.
On Tuesday, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak reinforced that guideline with a statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.
“That’s not always good for the closure that a lot of families are looking for, but at least they get the support they need (via videoconferencing),” said Clark, noting that family and friends can still participate remotely.
Even those who attend are asked to space out and keep six feet apart.
At Walton’s, live streaming services are not available yet. Instead, they’ve postponed many of the ceremonies while continuing cremation and burial services. They expect a spike in services once self-isolation orders cease statewide.
Janice Chaffin, of Los Gatos, Calif., who is organizing her mother’s burial through Walton’s said the family would be holding a small family gathering for her mother, who died on March 22 in Sparks, once the COVID-19 virus was contained.
“Because we live in California, we had a shelter in place order. We’re over 65 so we can’t go anywhere. They’d probably make an exception for us, but we decided not to rush up to Reno,” said Chaffin.
In recent months, her mother, Irene Durbin, who was 95, had been in hospice and they’d made every effort to visit before she declined rapidly over the past week. The family’s greatest concern was that Durbin, who was lovingly referred to as “The Bingo Queen,” for her love of the game, would be comfortable. They also worried that hospice staff would continue to be able to visit Durbin as senior homes were locked down.
When it became clear that Durbin was going to die soon, the home — which hasn’t been allowing visitors, including some hospice workers — made an exception for Chaffin’s daughter, who lives in Truckee.
“She got on Facetime with my mom. We said our final goodbyes. While we weren’t there, my daughter was able to hold her hand. We’d like to think that she could hear us, and she knew that it was ok to go,” Chaffin said.
For now, Chaffin’s mom will be buried in the Sacramento Valley with Chaffin’s late father, a World War II veteran, in a veteran’s cemetery. While it’s hard not to grieve together, the family, which is scattered around the U.S., is relying on technology to comfort each other until they hold their own ceremony at a later date.
“It felt like it was the best we could do given the situation,” said Chaffin.
The value of gathering
Noel didn’t know immediately how many services had been held in the past week, but he noted that most people find it difficult to reduce a funeral to 10 attendees. For many, 10 people — if you include the staff and the officiant — cannot even include all of the immediate family, Noel acknowledged.
“Mayor Bob Cashell’s funeral, we handled that from start to finish. That was an event.Imagine if that had happened during all of this. That was probably one of the biggest and meaningful funerals that Reno’s ever had,” said Noel.
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Largely, clients have been choosing to postpone ceremonies on their own because gathering with friends and family to honor the decedent is an important part of the grieving process, Noel said. It’s important for each funeral to reflect the person’s life, he added.
“We really encourage that. They can really personalize the service. The old days of a hymn song and a priest are gone. It shouldn’t be cookie cutter,” said Noel. “When I started as an apprentice in this industry 37 years ago, every (funeral) was the same. We used to joke: Two songs and a preacher. Every one was the same.”
Today, though some opt for more traditional ceremonies, funerals have become more expressive and unique to the individual who died.
Noel’s planned funerals in which more than 50 motorcyclists escorted a casket. Another featured all the guests arriving in their hot rods because the deceased loved classic vehicles. Noel’s also attached a former fireman’s casket to a firetruck and found a horse-drawn hearse for another service.
“We tell our funeral directors to be open to anything, be creative. What if someone loved skydiving? I would have him strapped on to a skydiver and come down to the service from the sky,” Noel said. “Every life deserves to be celebrated.”
Precautions after someone dies from COVID-19
As of March 25, health officials have reported the deaths of six COVID-19 patients, all of them in Clark County.
Noel and co-owner Kim Kandaras said they have not received any COVID-19 related deaths, but they are following federal and state guidelines closely so as to be prepared.
Currently, there is no known risk to being in the same room as a body infected with COVID-19, but the CDC has directed funeral officials to wear personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks, while handling any bodies that may have come in contact with the virus.
While Nevada health officials initially indicated that infected bodies could only be cremated, officials walked those directions back and are allowing both burial and cremation.
Should the state see a surge in deaths, funeral industry leaders are not currently concerned about having enough storage for bodies.
About 80 percent of clients choose cremation, according to Noel. Nevada has one of the highest cremation rates nationwide, he said.
The most challenging hurdle could be religious traditions related to death, Kandaras said, such as the common washing of the body and bedside prayers. While the CDC says such traditions can be permitted, those participating should take precautionary measures and disinfect surfaces following the rituals.
The hope is that families will be understanding of the unique circumstances and adapt as necessary, said Kandaras and Noel.
“This is what is going to protect you. This is what is going to protect us,” Noel said.
Jenny Kane covers arts and culture in Northern Nevada, as well as the dynamic relationship between the state and the growing Burning Man community. She also covers the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry (Check out her podcast, the Potcast, on iTunes.) Support her work in Reno by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.
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