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Virus restrictions make difficult times even harder for funeral homes and grieving families

  • Greg Camp, of Cabot Funeral Home, is adjusting to the precautions required to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Woodstock, Vt., April 9, 2020. Camp regularly cleans inside the funeral home, where he lives upstairs with his wife who has an immune condition. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Greg Camp has masks, gloves and sanitizer available for families visiting to make funeral arrangements at Cabot Funeral Home in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, April 9, 2020. Since Governor Scott’s stay at home order began on March 25, Camp has made arrangements for five families, three of which communicated electronically. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Paul Hutt, of Bridgewater, fixes an electrical short in his tractor at Riverside Cemetery, one of seven where he maintains the grounds and digs graves in Woodstock, Vt., April 9, 2020. “I try to keep it ready to go in case I get a line of (burials),” said Hutt. “I’ve probably dug over 300 graves with this tractor,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Greg Camp, of Cabot Funeral Home, is executive director of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association. During the COVID-19 pandemic he is not holding services at Cabot Funeral Home in Woodstock, Vt. “I do think there will be some permanent changes,” he said of the pandemic’s effects to his business. “But hopefully not with services. I’m a firm believer in the human interaction.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 4/11/2020 9:23:00 PM
Modified: 4/11/2020 9:22:57 PM

The notices are appearing at the bottom of many obituaries, and they all convey the same message.

“There will be no services at this time.”

“There will be a celebration of his life at a later date.”

“The memorial service and reception ... will no longer be held” and instead has been postponed.

The coronavirus pandemic, in addition to upending the lives of families, is adding another hard reality: Funeral home directors not only help mourning survivors with their grief but now need to counsel them through uncertainty in a burial date and paying for a funeral when family members have lost their jobs.

Both New Hampshire and Vermont have banned public gatherings of 10 people or more, which sets a low ceiling on the number who can attend a funeral or memorial service. The limit is causing families to delay indefinitely the date when they can celebrate and honor the life of the deceased.

Vernona Bell’s husband of 61 years, Harold Bell, died April 2 at their home in White River Junction, at age 87. An airborne radio operator with the Navy during the years of the Korean War, Harold Bell “purchased and made arrangements years ago” to be buried at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph, his widow said.

But now with COVID-19 preventing the far-flung family from knowing when they all can gather for the ceremony, “we’re waiting just like everybody else,” Vernona Bell said.

Burials and small gatherings are currently permitted at the veterans cemetery in Randolph — the only one in the state — although those planned for this month have been suspended, according to Robert Burke, director of the Vermont Office of Veteran Affairs in Montpelier.

“We only had two (burials) scheduled for April, and both of those made the decision to reschedule,” Burke said.

But depending upon the pandemic and how long social distancing restrictions remain in effect, there is a possibility that the state-managed veteran’s cemetery in Randolph will have to be more restrictive.

“The national veteran cemeteries are not doing any committal ceremonies or military honors,” Burke said. “In the next couple of weeks we are going to need to make a decision whether or not that is the path we want to go down in order for people to stay home and safe.”

The veterans cemetery in Randolph has about 200 burials annually with the peak season running from June through the fall.

The 10-person limit is making it even harder for grieving families, said David Ahern, owner of Ricker Funeral Home in Lebanon.

“A lot of these folks are not working,” Ahern said of families he’s spoken with. “They are living in fear and anxiety because of COVID-19, and they just lost a loved one? I can tell you it’s hot and heavy, the grief and distress, in all families we are serving.”

The pandemic is reaching its peak just as the New England “committal season” is about to begin. Most cemeteries are operated by local municipalities and in the Upper Valley. With the exception of Lebanon and Hanover, which have year-round burials — cemeteries open in early May. Caskets are stored in “winter holding vaults” in Lebanon and White River Junction (Bradford, Vt., has one, too) in the months before burial, typically in the spring and summer.

However, casket burials are declining as the overwhelming majority — about 80% — in New Hampshire and Vermont are choosing cremation, said Jeff Knight, owner of Knight Funeral Homes & Crematory in White River Junction.

Still, Knight said COVID-19 is forcing funeral homes to change procedures.

A recent family viewing at Knight required that only a small group of people at a time could be allowed into the viewing room.

“It was a large family, and people had to take turns in groups of 10 coming in at a time,” he said. “At a time like that, people want to hug each other and be affectionate, and that family was especially good in making sure they kept a distance from each other and wore face masks.”

David Polli, manager of Hale Funeral Homes & Cremation Care in Bradford, said Hale, too, is practicing social distancing during viewings — visitors are required to sit three chairs away from each other.

“Everyone is accepting of the fact that services need to be small and special precautions need to be taken,” he said. “People are very aware and sensitive. It’s not like we’ve had to convince them of something they don’t want to do.”

Funeral directors said that fewer families are visiting their offices to make arrangements and instead business is conducted over the phone and via email. In addition, funeral service staff are practicing what the industry refers to as “universal precautions,” which includes wearing plastic gloves, eye goggles, face masks and in some cases protective Tyvek suits when retrieving and transporting the deceased.

“We’ve been in that world for decades, going back to HIV and the SARS virus,” Greg Camp, director of Cabot Funeral Home in Woodstock and executive director of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association, said about donning protective gear. “We’re just taking extra precautions now.”

He said families of all five of the deceased Cabot has handled over the past two weeks have chosen to delay services.

“All five are graveside cremation services where they want more than 10 people,” Camp said.

The Lebanon winter storage vault, which also receives caskets from surrounding towns that do not allow burials during the winter, has capacity for 18 caskets. Last year at this time the vault held eight caskets compared with 10 as of Tuesday, according to Paula Maville, deputy city manager.

“We are definitely finding the increase (in caskets at the vault) is due to the fact that churches and families are holding off because of the emergency for limiting gatherings to 10 persons and social distancing,” Maville said.

John Wilson, owner of Rand-Wilson Funeral Home in Hanover, said that he has only one burial scheduled for this week, and only two people will attend.

“We have another scheduled in June, and I’m sure that’s going to be moved to July,” Wilson said. Meanwhile, the four cremation burials that were planned for the coming weeks “have all been rescheduled until everything is over.”

The pandemic has only made the grieving process more difficult, said Rosemary Whitman, of East Thetford, whose husband of 36 years, Norbert Whitman, died March 17 at 59 years old.

Norbert, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2014, worked in a variety of occupations but was an especially adept mechanic and spent more than 30 years in the Air Force and Vermont National Guard.

Delaying the memorial service means delaying mourning with family and friends, although Rosemary said she was grateful for her fellow members of Valley Bible Church in White River Junction who have provided comfort through phone calls and “a whole lot of cards, a pile of cards.”

“It’s kind of like grieving by yourself in a world where we often do things together. You don’t realize how much you depend upon people when all of a sudden you can’t see someone,” she said.

She said her husband will be buried in the veterans cemetery in Randolph.

As of now, Whitman said, “we pushed his burial even further back due to the COVID-19 issues. We are hoping sometime in the middle of May to be able to bury him. I’m just praying I can have more than 10 people at the cemetery because he deserves a military salute and burial.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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