Funeral directors maintain social distancing rules for grieving families with 'innovative' ideas

Funeral directors are doing more than virtual services.

April 18, 2020, 6:04 AM

When a married couple and four others from South Carolina went to a funeral last month, no one expected them to get the novel coronavirus from a fellow mourner. Weeks later, they were dead.

The couple, with "several decades with adult children," were from Kershaw County and died four days apart, said Kershaw County Coroner David West. The four others were three women and one man from Sumter County who died between March 27 and April 2, said Sumter County Coroner Robert Baker.

It's unclear if they were related.

The coroners confirmed to ABC News on Friday that all the unidentified deceased were African American, ranging in ages from mid-60s to late 80s.

PHOTO: Cemetery workers prepare graves at a cemetery in Queens, New York, April 7, 2020.
Cemetery workers prepare graves at a cemetery in Queens, New York, April 7, 2020.
Marcus Santos/ZUMA Wire via Newscom

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued warnings against mass gatherings of 250 people and more or 10 or more for high-risk populations, across the country on March 15 to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Other safety measures, including social distancing and self-isolation, followed.

The safety precautions were enforced days after the six South Carolina mourners went to the same funeral earlier in the month, Baker said.

Since social distancing orders were implemented, events like funerals where family and friends gather together to mourn with hugs, kisses and other means of consoling, are now restricted to watching the service from a screen or a car at a distance.

"A lot of the churches are not even opening for Sunday services so it's either funeral homes or graveside services," said Carol Williams, the executive director of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, Inc. -- an African American funeral service organization.

Williams told ABC News that at first it was difficult to explain to grief-stricken customers that their loved one's last wishes could not get fulfilled because of public safety concerns.

PHOTO: This April 15, 2020, photo shows a cemetery in Staten Island, NY. that is closed due to COVID-19.
This April 15, 2020, photo shows a cemetery in Staten Island, NY. that is closed due to COVID-19.
Dennis Rees/SplashNew via Newscom

"But knowing that the virus is not something to play with, now families are coming in knowing that -- this is the new normal," said Williams, who has been in the funeral business with her husband since 1975 in Atlanta.

In South Carolina, 41% of the 3,931 coronavirus diagnosed patients are African American, who make up 27% of the state's population, according to the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control. Ninety percent of the state's coronavirus deaths are people over 60 years old.

In Georgia, where Williams lives, there are 17,194 confirmed cases of coronavirus including over 4,300 among African Americans, according to Georgia's Department of Public Health.

"We are just flooded, all of us are going through the grief process right now as we are servicing each other," said Williams about the statistics of African Americans dying from the coronavirus. "It's a silent killer and there is nothing we can do about it, but try to educate the community that this is serious and you need to practice social distancing."

Williams said social media entities like Facebook Live allow people all over the world to view funerals for free online while other directors use subscription livestreaming services such as Zoom that can control how many viewers attend.

While livestreaming funerals are not new to the industry, Williams said several of the association's 1,600 members are finding "innovative ways" to allow people to pay their last respects.

PHOTO: A funeral takes place in Elizabeth, N.J., March 27, 2020.
A funeral takes place in Elizabeth, N.J., March 27, 2020.
Todd Heisler/The New York Times via Redux

"We've had some funeral homes do services in the parking lot under a tent while practicing social distancing. Some have drive-thru windows with a video of the person on a monitor and people can drive by to see the deceased through the window. One funeral home had a service at the person's house with social distancing in place," said Williams.

Cemeteries are also performing social distancing ceremonies with up to 10 people at the gravesite and people can drive by the service in their cars to watch.

In-person visitations are still happening, but are limited to only two family members, Williams said. She cautions her members to always wear face mask during in-person visitations, but like health care workers around the world they are also short of personal protective equipment.

"We are having a hard time getting those protections. We can't buy them anywhere and its a big problem for us," said Williams, who asks interested donors to call their national offices for details on where to send PPE.

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