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Funeral homes face 'heart-wrenching' new normal under coronavirus

"It's much more stressful and more emotional," one funeral director said.

Funeral homes are learning to navigate a new normal of mourning under the novel coronavirus pandemic, as long-cherished embraces have been barred and memorials must be limited in size and scope.

For Thomas Pirro Jr., a funeral director in Syracuse, New York, not being able to comfort mourners has been one of the most challenging aspects.

"To see someone standing by themselves sobbing is heart wrenching," Pirro told ABC News on Saturday. "Losing a loved one is stressful and emotional under normal circumstances. To add this -- the safe-distance factor and limited number of people that are allowed -- it's much more stressful and more emotional than ever."

As the coronavirus, or COVID-19, continues to spread rapidly throughout the United States, states have responded by closing non-essential businesses, postponing public gatherings and urging the public to practice social distancing, which means individuals should leave 6 feet between themselves and others.

Whether funeral homes are deemed essential businesses is determined state by state. The National Funeral Directors Association put out guidance for homes that remained open to limit memorials to immediate family.

Pirro said that often means just children, spouses or partners, siblings and parents, though they still adhere to guidance from the White House of limiting any sort of gathering to 10 people or fewer. And in moments when Pirro said he would normally embrace someone or find a way to offer comfort, he now finds himself maintaining distance.

"There are people who are so emotional that, normally, if I knew them or had met them, that would be a situation that I would embrace them or hug them," he said. "That can't happen now."

It's no different in other hard-hit countries, such as Italy, where photos have shown just one family member attending a funeral.

In Austria, streaming services have been utilized for funerals after the government temporarily banned any gatherings of more than five people. The new guidelines in the U.S. have also prompted many families to stream services.

Bruce Likly, the president of Tribucast, a company that provides streaming services to funeral homes, said that in the last week he has seen upwards of 30 directors register for his system each day -- about five times what he normally sees.

In New York, the state with the most cases in the U.S., there has been a spike in utilizing streaming services, according to Mike Lanotte, executive director of the state's association.

Pirro said at his funeral home in Syracuse, out of 12 funerals administered last week, 10 chose to stream the service in some way for family members who wouldn't be allowed in.

"For the most part, people understand," Pirro said, "because, obviously, everyone's going through it. That being said, grieving this way is that much more difficult."

Steve Karboski, who owns a funeral home in Utica, said most recent funerals there haven't been coronavirus related.

"A lot of people are having a hard time. I don't want to say they feel like they're punished, but it's hard for them to comprehend that they can't do what they want to do," he said.

Like other funeral directors, he has opted to make streaming an option, whether it be through a service, Facebook Live or Facetime.

Karboski remembered a memorial he organized last week. A former member of the U.S. military had died, and his daughter, who lives in Rochester, wanted to be there but chose to stay home.

He ended up videoing the folding of the flags and gun salute to send to her.

It's in those moments, Karboski said, when he feels connected to families more than ever before.

"Funeral directors and funeral home staff have now become even more in the depths of grief," he said. "It's not as if friends or family are coming over. We're with them."

What to know about Coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: Coronavirus map
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