Funerals prohibited in Washington state in effort to slow coronavirus spread

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Funerals banned

Relatives stand behind a hearse carrying a coffin outside the Monumentale cemetery in Bergamo, Italy, Tuesday.

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Add funerals to the list of prohibited social gatherings under the state’s “social-distancing” order intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Sports and arts events had already shuttered after Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation Monday shutting down restaurants, bars, theaters and other places where people congregate.

On Thursday, the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) clarified the proclamation, emphasizing the prohibition on funeral and memorial services. (Weddings are also prohibited.)

“This statewide closure of entertainment, leisure and non-essential services includes funerals,” the DOL wrote in an email to funeral directors around the state.

According to a document from the DOL, cemeteries should restrict interment services to “delivery only.”

Russ Weeks, president and funeral director of Weeks Funeral Homes, which has funeral homes and mortuaries in Enumclaw, Buckley and Tacoma, said many families had already been electing to postpone memorial services.

But for some, he added, especially in families and cultures where funerals are a key part of community life, the decision has been especially difficult.

“We’ve always been trained — and I grew up in the funeral business — you never say no,” Weeks said. “You do whatever you can to do what the family wants. But we have to say: ‘No, I’m sorry, we want to help you but we can’t.'”

Weeks said funerals, with their hugs and handshakes, can be especially dangerous sites for virus transmission.

“You may not think of it, but there’s a lot of crying, tissues, lots of opportunities for transmission there as well,” he said.

Weeks referenced a case in Spain, where a cluster of over 60 infections had been traced to a single funeral.

“People need support, they need hugs, they need all those things that are good and healthy and helpful with funerals,” he said. “But with the virus epidemic, those things could be deadly as well.”

Nora Menkin, executive director of People’s Memorial Association and The Co-op Funeral Home, said she and her staff have been discussing options for client families, including livestreaming for those who wish to have a “witness cremation.” But the most significant change has been minimizing her staff’s direct contact with the families.

“We have to flatten our own curve,” she said. “We’re not thinking about ‘if’ but ‘when’ somebody gets sick.”

Funeral homes in the area, she said, have enough capacity to deal with the mortality rate from COVID-19. “At The Co-op Funeral Home, we have capacity to handle 20-25 percent more cases than we do,” she explained. “And the death rate usually goes down in the spring anyway. The funeral industry as a whole has higher capacity than it’s serving.”

She and Weeks said that people handling the deceased — escorting bodies out of homes, for example — have been especially cautious when dealing with those who may have died of COVID-19.

“A dead body is less dangerous than a living body,” Menkin said, “since the disease seems to spread through water droplets through sneezing or coughing. But just maneuvering a body might expel air from the nose and mouth.”

To minimize the risk of virus transmission, funeral homes have been covering the faces of the deceased before moving them — which is atypical. Normally, both Menkin and Weeks said, the face is left uncovered until the body leaves the home or facility. Funerary workers, Weeks added, are seeing the same shortages of medical equipment — masks, gloves — faced by the medical community.

For some, including members of the Jewish community, ritual bathing of the dead is an important part of the bereavement process. “Keeping a bag over the face is not dignified or ideal,” Menkin said. “So there’s talk about masking the face to protect the living.” So far, she said, these are just theoretical, preparatory conversations. Nobody she works with has needed that kind of service — yet.

“Who knows how long this will last?” Menkin asked. “I’m getting calls from friends across the country who are a few days or weeks behind us so they know what to prepare for. But it seems like that timeline is collapsing every day.”

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