When Mary Ann Kelly, 62, passed away from cancer in March, her family took solace in the fact that she’d be buried on her favorite holiday.
“St. Patrick’s Day was her favorite holiday, so we were excited — as excited as you can be — that her funeral service would be on St. Patrick’s Day and her friends would still get to come. We had everybody wear green, and we buried her in the sweater that she wore out every year,” said Nicole Kelly, Mary Ann’s 31-year-old daughter.
Mary Ann Kelly (front row, center left) and friends celebrating St. Patrick's Day. (Courtesy of Nicole Kelly)
St. Patrick’s Day is a big event in Davenport, Iowa, where Nicole Kelly grew up. Tens of thousands of revelers usually enjoy the parade held for the Quad Cities region and the family hoped that spirit would be captured in Mary Ann’s final send off.
“We’ve been in the area for 65 years. I would have thought 500 or 600 people would attend [the funeral],” said Mary Ann’s older sister, Nancy Shannon.
But as the day drew nearer, the coronavirus outbreak worsened. And the day before Mary Ann Kelly’s funeral, the Diocese of Davenport announced that in-person masses would have to be canceled.
The family was devastated. But ultimately, the church bent the rules to permit a small funeral on St. Patrick’s Day, so long as participants practiced social distancing and no communion was served, meaning the service was not a full Catholic mass. Shannon said it was strange to see her family sitting far apart from one another.
“It’s impossible to tell my family not to hug somebody,” Shannon said. “We did keep some distance. We spaced out the people in the receiving line. They all didn't stand so close together.”
Nicole (center) and Mary Ann Kelly (second from right) with family. (Courtesy of Nicole Kelly)
Despite the social distancing requirements and a smaller than expected turnout, in some ways the Kelly family was fortunate. As the coronavirus pandemic marches across the nation, more states are limiting the size of gatherings at the very time when hundreds of people are dying.
Only hours after the funeral, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an emergency order, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or less and closing down bars, restaurants, and other non-essential businesses.
Scott Brown, funeral director at Halligan McCabe DeVries Funeral Home, which handled Mary Ann Kelly’s services, said hers was among the last in-person services they conducted, due to the new restrictions. Halligan McCabe DeVries is now limited to conducting services for 10 or fewer people on the funeral home premises or at gravesites.
For the funeral industry, the restrictions come as a serious blow. Funeral homes provide an experience as much as a service to their clients.
“We can’t help the families grieve, we can't offer the support that we normally offer them, and we can't celebrate the life of the deceased as we normally would,” said Clive Anderson, who owns Pelham Funeral Home in Westchester County, New York, an early epicenter of the state’s coronavirus outbreak. “It has really turned our vocation into more of a transaction, rather than an experience.”
Anderson, who has worked in the funeral industry for 19 years, said the volume of business had remained the same at Pelham, but revenue had tumbled due to new social distancing restrictions. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned nonessential gatherings of any size in his “New York State on PAUSE” executive order that went into effect Sunday night. For Funeral homes, which are considered essential businesses under his order, services have been limited to immediate family only.
It follows that many families aren’t choosing expensive caskets or elaborate ceremonies at times like these. But as much as the restrictions are hurting business, Anderson said, they are hurting the families of the deceased more.
“It has really hurt the families,” Anderson said. “They can't hug anyone, they can't be there for each other. It has a devastating effect on families, and an effect on their mental health, too. They can't grieve as they normally would. “
Mary Ann Kelly with two of her grandchildren. (Courtesy of Nicole Kelly)
Stephen Kemp, president and CEO of Kemp Funeral Home in Southfield, Mich., said that the restrictions are heartbreaking for cultural and religious groups who place a high value on end-of-life services and ceremonies.
“Grief shared is grief diminished,” Kemp said. “Probably one of the most difficult things for people is they don’t get to meet their extended family. They don’t get to talk and laugh and look at videos and do all the things they typically do during a visitation to make the grief a little bit easier.”
He added: “If you don’t allow them to come together as a community and grieve and share with each other, it makes it very difficult.”
Mary Ann Kelly (back row, second from left) celebrating St. Patrick's Day with friends. (Courtesy of Nicole Kelly)
There are some workarounds to state restrictions, like those in Michigan temporarily banning gatherings of any size. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), for whom Kemp is a spokesperson, released guidelines to help funeral directors adhere to health and safety guidelines, while also meeting the emotional needs of their clients. Recommendations include hosting private viewings for only immediate family and close friends, delaying the funeral, postponing memorial services, or streaming funerals over the Internet so those who wish to participate don’t have to leave the safety of their homes.
Kemp, Anderson and Brown all said they’ve had the capacity to livestream clients’ funerals over platforms like YouTube or Facebook Live for quite some time, but never fielded much demand for the services. Since the coronavirus outbreak, however, Kemp said his funeral home has livestreamed almost as many funerals in the past few weeks as they had in the past year.
In addition to the unique challenges facing the funeral industry, it also faces challenges similar to other essential businesses operating during the pandemic like implementing mandatory social distancing measures in the workplace, and, most crucially, coping with shortages of personal protective equipment like masks, scrubs, and gloves.
Funeral homes transport and embalm the bodies of those who have died. Like health care professionals, they must adhere to universal precautions, like wearing masks, gloves and gowns when at risk of exposure to bodily fluids.
Halligan McCabe DeVries has a limited supply of masks, but Brown said the home can’t currently source more than it already has on hand.
“Our suppliers said the next time they might have something available is the middle of April. Masks are the big thing. Gloves are mass produced so we have a backlog of that,” he said.
And it isn’t just masks that are in short supply. Kemp said his funeral home has had trouble sourcing even basic cleaning supplies like sanitizers and bleach. With only about a week of supplies left, Kemp said he is “anxiously and furiously trying to find a supply chain” for more supplies. If his business runs out, it will have to cease operations at a time when people still need funeral services. Kemp said he has fielded calls about services for four coronavirus-related deaths already.
“Our job is kind of the end health care professionals in that we make a final disposition for loved ones. We have a public health responsibility,” Kemp said.
As for families in mourning, like Mary Ann Kelly’s, they’ll have to adjust, too, to a new normal of grief and loss in the time of coronavirus.
“It kind of just feels unfair,” Nicole Kelly said. “Had she passed away a week earlier, things would have been different. Had she passed away a week later, things I’m sure would also be different. I guess I am mostly sad for her...but it’s the best we could do.”
Mary Ann and Nicole Kelly at Nicole's graduate school graduation. (Courtesy of Nicole Kelly)