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Funeral homes adapt high-touch business to social distancing

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Mar 30, 2020
Courtesy of: Reposta Funeral Home Riposta Funeral Home in Belfast, like many others, is adapting to serving customers during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's very awkward," said Katie Riposta, managing funeral director at Riposta Funeral Home in Belfast. She was talking about the fact that when she meets with people who have lost a loved one — just in ones and twos, these days — she cannot give them a hug.

The normally a high-touch funeral business is now hands-off because of concerns about COVID-19, the coronavirus. Riposta and Julie Clement, co-owner of Long Funeral Home Inc. in Camden, both said they have not handled a death from the virus yet, but are preparing to. Both funeral homes have sent non-essential workers home and are doing most of their work with families via phone and email.

Families still come in for private viewings of fewer than 10 people, and Riposta commented that seeing a loved one after death was especially important to people when they could not be present at the time of passing. Hospitals in the Midcoast and many other areas are now limiting visitors, even for patients who are terminal, to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

She noted that funeral directors are used to taking precautions and wearing protective gear when handling bodies, because they do not always know the cause of death. "We assume that anyone could have a contagious disease," she said.

Clement said her funeral home has a good supply of most PPEs right now, except for N95 masks, but it has been difficult to get items such as disinfectant sprays and soaps. She added that the National Association of Funeral Directors was recently successful in lobbying the Department of Homeland Security to include mortuary workers as "critical infrastructure workers," meaning that they are among the occupations that should have priority access to personal protective equipment and should be exempt from shelter-in-place orders.

She also noted that she and co-owner John Long have worked with families via email and phone for a long time because of the many seasonal residents in the Midcoast. Often, she said, this means that families living in another state want to bury a loved one in their home away from home.

While some families are delaying a funeral or memorial service, there are alternatives, both women said. Riposta said her funeral home can provide a video tribute on its website, and many families choose a photo slide show along with the traditional guest book where friends and family can leave a memory or condolence. Long's is able to livestream or webcast a service, which is normally done when an overflow crowd is expected; it could be adapted for remote participation.

As the spring burial season has not begun yet — it usually starts in May, once the ground has both thawed and dried — both women said they had not had to postpone burials yet. But Clement said she anticipated delaying public gatherings at least into May and possibly longer. She expects to do some graveside services without family present, as some relatives, particularly older ones, are reluctant to travel right now.

She said she has been talking with local cemeteries about possible off-site storage in case there is a larger-than-usual number of deaths. She added that "We're hoping and praying the curve has been reduced," referring to the effort to avoid a spike in cases of COVID-19 that could overwhelm hospitals.

Riposta said one effect of the pandemic had been to bring thoughts about death to the top of many people's minds. She has seen an increase in people asking about making arrangements in advance, she said. "It's definitely been eye-opening."

Clement, who has been in the business for nearly 30 years, added, "It makes you aware of how precious and fragile life truly is."

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