A year of COVID: Funeral homes help families find a new way to grieve

  • Katie Roan, who owns Roan Family Funeral Homes and Cremation Service with her husband, Matthew, discusses the challenges of the past year during an interview at their Allenstown facility, Petit-Roan Funeral Home, on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Katie Roan, who owns Roan Family Funeral Homes and Cremation Service with her husband, Matthew, at their Allenstown facility, Petit-Roan Funeral Home on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/6/2021 3:41:30 PM

When the state’s funeral homes first started discussing how to safely commemorate COVID-19 patients last spring, the worst of the pandemic was still months away. What followed was unlike anything funeral directors had ever seen.

Whether someone died from COVID or not, the time-honored tradition of attending a funeral and paying final respects suddenly stopped. Slowly, in-person services returned, but only for small groups. Small, intimate gatherings or video stream became the norm.

Katie Roan, who owns Roan Family Funeral Homes and Cremation Service with her husband, Matt, said in the first couple of months after the virus arrived, her business only received a handful of calls from people whose loved ones died from the virus. But as summer came to an end and the state’s numbers started ramping up for a second and much more severe wave, Roan started planning what the new iteration of her job would look like.

Funeral directors have had a more intimate view of the toll of COVID than most. In New Hampshire, they have seen the bodies of nearly 1,200 people whose lives were cut short by the virus. Funeral homes transport the dead, prepare bodies for cremation or burial, and help the family of the deceased mourn – all of which have been dramatically altered by the pandemic.

For much of the summer, the Roan Family Funeral Home exclusively held outdoor services. When the time came to hold services indoors, they had a long list of safety guidelines to follow from the state.

“Tissues and no-touch trash cans should be made readily available for drying eyes and blowing noses with hand sanitizer readily available,” one point in the guidance read.

The services, which used to be decorated with commemorative poster boards, are now somewhat barren – anything that might draw a crowd was quickly nixed to prevent the spread of the virus. The family of the loved one sit at the edge of the room while guests briskly walk through, following a route outlined in pink painters tape on the floor.

The Roans follow a set of exhaustive sanitation procedures. Most things – including the pen people use to sign the guest book – are wiped down frequently and hand sanitizer stations are strategically placed throughout the visitation area.

Roan said she doesn’t stop people from shaking hands or hugging as long as both parties are wearing masks, though close contact is discouraged by the state. She knows how important those gestures are to the family.

Behind the scenes, things have changed for Roan too.

Though unlikely, scientists think those who have passed from COVID-19 may still be able to spread the virus. To keep herself and the rest of the staff safe, the funeral home added additional layers of safety precautions to each step of the process.

She carefully places a mask on the deceased before transportation – any time a body is moved it expels air. If the deceased’s family asks to have their loved one cremated, the body is stored in a separate refrigeration. If they request embalming, she suits up in a respirator, gown, gloves and various other layers of protective equipment.

The mourning process has been remarkably lonely this year.

Often times, families grieving a COVID-19 death have already been separated from their loved one due to hospital visitation restrictions. After the death, they’re separated from their support system.

When the pandemic first started, many people chose to hold off on their services until things went back to normal.

“We had people last year that postponed for when this blows over when summer comes,” she said. “And summer came and it didn’t blow over.”

As it became increasingly clear COVID would limit events for months, Roan had to create ways to honor the dead. She organized drive through visitation under the building’s portico that allowed friends and family to look onto the casket from their cars. The funeral home also started offering to video stream the funeral using Tribucast, software tailored to funeral directors that has become increasingly popular during the pandemic. A tablet propped up on a tripod streams the service, though few people opted for a virtual ceremony.

“People aren’t able to be surrounded by the ones that love them,” she said. “They’re not able to talk about the person. I don’t think people have gotten the chance to properly mourn.”

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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