There was a funeral service at Legacy Chapels in Edinburg on Friday.
Mourners wore face masks or bandanas, abiding by new regulations put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They were carefully shuffled through the lobby and the chapel as the staff tried to keep too many of the deceased’s friends and family from congregating in the same place.
“We have room for two more inside,” one of Legacy’s employees announced politely. The family of four waiting outside the chapel said they would hold off for a little while longer. Maybe they wanted to wait to pay their respects until they could go into the room together.
The chapel is a spacious room, usually filled with pews and hundreds of mourners. The cloth-covered pews were too hard to sanitize and had been replaced by 10 plastic yellow chairs, spaced out almost absurdly far from each other in the cavernously empty room.
The chairs were empty and the bereaved stood at the far end of the chapel, near the casket. I was struck by two men hugging in front of the open casket, something that wouldn’t have looked out of place at any pre-pandemic funeral. It was the first hug this writer had seen in well over a month.
Legacy Chapels Funeral Director Lee Castro says those once-common displays of affection for the grieving have become far rarer. It’s almost as if the grief just can’t make it past the layers of face masks and hand-sanitizer and 6-foot gaps.
“You see it on people’s faces,” he said. “Even the crying, you don’t even hear the crying as much anymore. The hugging and kissing, you don’t see that as much anymore. It’s kind of surreal, it’s a weird feeling.”
Castro said it’s difficult to adjust customs around death and mourning to pandemic policies.
“Distance is tough, especially in this profession with this culture. Everybody wants to be together,” he said. “All we can tell them is it’s unfortunate timing.”
Legacy livestreams services and does everything possible to accommodate the bereaved while staying in compliance with rules passed by the city and the county. The city fire marshal visited twice this week, Castro said.
“He’ll come by, see how everything is. Ask if we have any questions. If we ever have issues with the regulations he’ll help us enforce it, so that’s been a big help already,” he said.
So far Legacy Chapels hasn’t dealt with a COVID-19 fatality. Castro said if they do, the Centers for Disease Control guideline as much as possible.
“They don’t even recommend people to touch the deceased,” he said.
Other funeral homes are beginning to handle coronavirus fatalities for the first time. David Wittenbach, owner of Duddlesten Funeral Home in Raymondville, says two of the Rio Grande Valley’s first COVID-19 fatalities were handled by his business.
“I don’t know for a fact, but I think the ones we dealt with were the first ones in the Valley,” he said.
At 100 years old, Duddlesten Funeral Home would have been around to catch the tail end of the infamous Spanish flu pandemic. Wittenbach, who’s worked at the home for about 50 years, said he too has seen his share of epidemics over the years.
“I’ve been in the business a long time, I’ve gone through TB back in the beginning, the end of polio,” he said.
Wittenbach says he’s not nervous about dealing with COVID-19 fatalities, but acknowledged that there’s some scientific uncertainty over the disease.
“There’s a lot of extra precautions we’re taking,” he said. “For the CDC, it’s all brand new to them, so we don’t really know what we’re up against. It’s not like a normal virus that we’re dealing with and that’s why it’s become a pandemic. They can’t really give us any definite guidelines to follow other than our normal procedure, and I don’t know as a professional whether that’s good enough or not.”
Wittenbach said part of those precautions involve not offering embalmings or open casket visitations. Services for the individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 were kept exceptionally small.
“The family basically just kept it as quiet as possible,” Wittenbach said. “The two cases that were positive elected not to even come to the funeral home. We had graveside services and it was family only. That was their preference.”
Although Wittenbach said those precautions are wise from a public health standpoint, he says he’s sure the experience is difficult for the families of the deceased.
“It’s a very important part of the funeral, having the opportunity for closure, and they’re not getting that,” he said. “Most of the family is quarantined, and they can’t attend the funeral if they wanted to because they’re quarantined, and that’s what’s really hard.”
There’s indications the coronavirus may change how people mourn and deal with death. Castro, with Legacy Chapels, said he could see an uptick in cremations as a result of the outbreak. John Kreidler, owner of Kreidler Funeral Home in McAllen, said he expects some services to be delayed until the end of the pandemic.
“One of the burial services we’ve had, the sons don’t live here, so they’re not coming down until May or June to have a memorial service,” he said.
According to Kreidler, putting funerals on hold for a time isn’t such a foreign idea in parts of the country.
“Up north in the winter time, especially where the ground freezes solid 3 or 4 feet down, a lot of funeral homes leave the body in a big storage area over the winter and then when the spring thaw happens, they start doing graveside after graveside after graveside until everyone that was in storage is buried,” he said. “So they’re sort of used to that up there, but not down here.”
COVID-19 is also likely to cause ripples through the backstage of the funerary business that will present a challenge to the industry.
Although he has a fair stockpile, Castro says he’s already begun conserving his supply of personal protective equipment as much as possible.
“The funeral business is considered essential work by the government, so we’re supposed to have access to all this PPE and body bags, they’re what we call bio-safe bags,” he said. “I ordered one three weeks ago, and they’re on backorder. I ordered face masks, they’re on backorder. I ordered gloves, everything’s on backorder.”
Kreidler said the pandemic has also affected the logistics of getting bodies to where they need to be buried.
“There’s this lady that we’re sending out to Wisconsin, we have a funeral Tuesday morning at 10 and after that we have to take her to the airport in Harlingen because American has canceled all of their flights out of McAllen with planes big enough to put a body on, so we’re having to use Southwest Airlines in Harlingen,” Kreidler said. “It’s tough for me, because my whole existence is to take care of the families that call us, and when I can’t do what they want me to do it’s very frustrating.”
Kreidler said ultimately he doesn’t think the changes caused by the pandemic will make a permanent mark on the funerary industry.
“I’m very hopeful that when all this is over we’re going to go back to the way we’ve been doing things, because that’s what people want, they want to have traditional funerals with viewings and visitations and rosaries if they’re catholic,” he said. “Once this is over with and the all clear signal’s given by the county and the federal government, I think we will fairly rapidly go back to that.”