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A funeral procession lines up at Yoder-Culp Funeral Home in Goshen Tuesday morning.

GOSHEN — For an industry built around bringing large groups of people together to grieve and mourn, funeral homes in the age of COVID-19 are having to completely rethink the way they do business.

“It’s interesting, because it’s kind of changing daily,” said Brad Billings, owner of Billings Funeral Home in Elkhart. “For example, a couple days ago we had an online chat with the National Funeral Directors Association president, the Indiana Funeral Directors Association president, and then somebody from the Indiana State Department of Health, and they were like, ‘Hey, it’s business as usual. The embalming will kill the virus, use universal precautions, you can have a visitation, a funeral, etc.’ And we were like, great. Well, then all the sudden it started off with a limit of gatherings of 250 people or less, and then it was 50, and now it’s 10.”

Faced with this new reality, Billings said he and his staff have been forced to think on their feet when it comes to how best to serve their clients, while also keeping the health and safety of all involved at the forefront of their minds.

“We had a staff meeting this morning, and we’re still going to try to honor families, to serve families, but we just have to think outside the box a little bit on how we can do that, and keep it safe not only for the families, but for my staff as well,” he said. “So, right now, we’re doing private-type visitations with social distancing, we’ve got hand sanitizer, we’re trying live streaming of funerals to families, etc.”

But for Brant Ehret, funeral director with Rieth-Rohrer-Ehret Funeral Homes, which has locations in both Goshen and Wakarusa, even small public visitations and services have been put on hold in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our current response is that we’re going to follow the president’s guideline to keep gatherings to no more than 10 people as much as we can. So, at this point, we’re not going to be holding public visitations and public services,” Ehret said of the funeral home’s current policy. “In saying that, we still want to be able to respect and take care of our deceased’ loved ones, so it’s going to be kind of figuring out how we need to do that, where maybe it’ll be a memorial service that will be later once people can gather, and taking care of burials and cremations now, etc.”

NOT MANY ANSWERS

Given all of the unknowns that currently surround the pandemic, Billings said he’s the first to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers. For him and many of his colleagues in the funeral home business, the way forward is simply uncharted territory.

“It’s just changing. We’re confused, too. It’s just unprecedented. Nobody knows what to do,” he said. “So, you just have to use best practices, common sense, you have to listen to what the family would like to do, and then try to put that within guidelines of what the state’s telling us, and our governor, and our president, and still try to honor a life and help the family grieve. And it’s tough. It’s really tough. But I’ve got a great staff, and we’re trying the best we can to help the families.”

Ehret offered a similar sentiment.

“It’s going to be kind of a case-by-case basis from here on out, but ultimately what’s best for public safety,” Ehret said. “Public safety is our number one concern right now, just like it should be for everybody else.”

Along those lines, Ehret said Tuesday was the first time he really came face to face with the new directives surrounding the COVID-19 virus, having to call off a larger, typical visitation and service and instead substitute a much smaller, family-only affair.

“Today was the first time we really dealt with it. We had a visitation and service set up for today, and we switched everything to be private and close family. And so, we had to turn people away at the door, which is tough, because everybody wants to come in and be able to remember a life that was lived. But because of this, we can’t allow that,” he said of the virus. “So, it’s very difficult. But it seems like most people are understanding now that everybody else is doing it, and I think it will be easier once we’re able to post online with obits, and I don’t know if we’re going to get situations where we’re going to have maybe video visitations, or recommend in obits that people contact and send condolences and love directly to the family electronically, etc.

“There still needs to be remembrance even during this time, and it’s just finding out the best way to do that, and I think we just kind of need to slowly work that out,” he added. “But our number one concern is public safety, and then we need to go from there.”

For Colin Yoder, funeral director at Yoder Culp Funeral Home in Goshen, little had changed in terms of operations as of Tuesday afternoon, though he noted the virus — and how to deal with it — is definitely front and center for both he and his staff.

“We’re certainly thinking about it and talking about it,” Yoder said of the situation. “I mean, we’ve been fortunate so far in that we haven’t so much had a group with a crowd size that is going to be more than what they’re asking us to restrict it to. But we’re definitely getting phone calls with people wondering about it. We’ve also had a group that has chosen to wait to do a memorial service until a later time. So, that’s probably going to be happening more and more in the days and weeks ahead.

“So, we’re going to have to kind of see what comes up, and then deal with that on a case by case basis. There are obvious concerns about staff here going into nursing homes, going into hospitals, etc. So, we’ve watched some funeral association seminars and things like that to keep us educated and informed on safe practices, and we’re definitely exercising precaution in every instance,” he added. “But it’s definitely on our minds, and if it comes up, we’re going to have to do our best to work with people in that regard. And this community is a good community, and I’m sure that everybody has their health and safety at the forefront of their mind. So, like I said, when we get there, we’ll have to see how that goes.”

John Kline can be reached at john.kline@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240315. Follow John on Twitter @jkline_TGN.

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