Social Distancing Is Changing The Way We Honor The Dead

Mar 31, 2020

While the number of Pennsylvanians who have died from COVID-19 continues to climb, families who have lost loved ones to the pandemic -- and to other causes -- are trying to figure out what mourning rituals look like during a period of social distancing.

Under Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order, gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. With two funeral home staffers required to conduct a service, that leaves just eight spots for loved ones of the deceased, and a tough choice for families during an already difficult time.

Some funeral homes in Pennsylvania are offering live streams of funeral services through popular apps including Skype, Zoom and Facebook according to Kathy Ryan, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association.

“I think it will become more prevalent during this pandemic,” she said. “Right now it’s a viable option for families.”

Roland Coston-Criswell, president of Coston Funeral Home, with locations in East Liberty, the North Side and Homewood, has offered to stream small services through Facebook, but said some of his clients have not been keen on the idea.

“People want to be able to see, touch and hear and be with one another. It's not so much the body as much as it is getting together around the presence of the deceased," he said. "That's why I have had some clients postpone their services."

Those services will have to be postponed until at least April 30 after both President Donald Trump and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf extended their original orders.

In order to protect his staff, Coston-Criswell has also eliminated limousine services and started holding planning meetings with families remotely.

Coston-Criswell said he relies on educational resources provided by the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association and the National Funeral Directors Association for protecting his staff while carrying out procedures like embalming and handling body bags.

"With the proper disinfection and proper universal precautions you can safeguard yourself,” he said.  

The Centers for Disease Control has stated, there is no known risk associated with being in the same room as someone who died of COVID-19. However, the CDC has also advised people to avoid touching the body of someone who has died from the infection.

It’s not clear how long big services will be banned or if more changes are afoot for end-of-life rituals, but Coston-Criswell is sure of one thing.

“This profession will be forever changed by the pandemic.”