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Funeral Homes Find Ways to Help People Grieve Amid Coronavirus-Related Restrictions

by on April 07, 2020 4:45 AM


What a difference a few months makes.

Two months ago my daughter and I joined a mass of 25,000 other runners lined up in the predawn darkness outside Epcot in the Walt Disney World Resort. We and the thousands of others were packed together along the road as we waited for the start of the Disney Princess Half-Marathon. Huddled in the damp and chilly air we were happy for the close company of others – both for the camaraderie and the body heat. We had never heard of social distancing.

After the race we spent the rest of the day, and all of the next, in the four Disney parks. Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios were all jam-packed – several “cast members” (employees in Disney lingo) commented about the large crowds they hadn’t expected at work that day. Lines for most rides were measured in hundreds of minutes. Even the mundane WEDway PeopleMover – the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover for those detail-oriented folks – had a 45-minute line. In other words, the parks were full.

Now here we are today in Happy Valley and all the Disney Parks are closed – a once unfathomable concept – and have no date for reopening. In the same way that thousands upon thousands of other businesses all over the country are closed. It’s a sacrifice we are all making to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In a bit of silver-lining news, Happy Valley has thus far been spared the brunt of this terrible disease – and we all hope that continues. As I write this Centre County has a total of 44 confirmed cases, only two of which required hospitalization, and no deaths. As a community we are grateful for this.

Given that Centre County stretches over 1,110 square miles with an estimated population of only 162,000, that means each of us is theoretically allotted over 190,000 square feet of space – more than the size of four football fields. That makes social distancing a little easier than in New York City with a population of almost 8.4 million in only 303 square miles. Each New Yorker is theoretically allotted only 1,000 square feet of space – almost 200 times less than those of us in Happy Valley. Just more than a 10-yard by 10-yard chunk of a single football field.

Granted these numbers don’t take into account the many buildings in New York City with multiple floors that increase that total space, but rural living seems to be a benefit with this disease where keeping your distance from other people is recommended. Which may be why New York City’s infection rate per 100,000 people is 30 times ours – 800 people versus 27 people.

Yet there are essential businesses that are still open, and people who work at jobs that require getting close to others even in these tragic times. Doctors, nurses, EMTs, police and others are rightfully being championed for their courage and unselfishness in the face of this personal peril. Those who work in the stores where we get our food and daily needs and those who provide necessary services are also lauded. That is true right here in Happy Valley as well as in the large cities.

However, there is one business category that must stay open and requires a degree of closeness to others which has not received much attention across the nation and especially here in Happy Valley – gratefully because we have not had a death due to the coronavirus. That critical infrastructure business category is funeral homes.

Because my wife, Jackie, works with Koch Funeral Home here in State College I know a little more about funeral homes than I might want to – but they are a fact of life. As a celebrant Jackie has had the honor of leading the services for a number of locals who died. It’s something she finds very fulfilling and takes great care in ensuring that the loved ones who are left behind receive the service that they want and desire. For her it’s a privilege to be able to provide comfort during times of grief, as does everyone at Koch. What Jackie always reminds me is that people are at their most authentic and real during times of death – and she finds those moments of truth to be very spiritual for her. 

Funeral homes are highly regulated businesses and under normal circumstances there is a great deal of prudence that goes along with caring for the body of the deceased. So those who work there take many precautions to ensure an environment that is safe, sterile and clean.

But the death of a loved one is primarily a time to grieve. In our culture it often means hugging, shaking hands, an arm around a shoulder – a certain amount of touching, and mostly being present. Those moments of physical human contact and the close presence of others are a part – an essential part for many – of the grieving process. In addition, the entire planning process from death to burial or cremation has traditionally been done with multiple family members, with a hands-on approach that reflects the delicate nature of these moments.

Now with the social distancing and group-gathering restrictions in place, it is impossible to perform those functions in the personal manner they have been. And although Happy Valley has not had a single death from COVID-19 to date, people still continue to die from other causes.

What that means is the Koch staff members are being creative and encouraging unique ways for families to make plans and honor their loved ones while also protecting the health of all involved. Rituals and gatherings around a death can set the tone for the entire grief journey. Caring for the deceased and grieving a loved one can’t be put on hold. Koch knows that and continues to provide support. 

Although they are just a few of the many people who put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis so that the rest of us may continue living, those in the funeral industry look forward to the end of this terrible time in history so they may go back to offering the public services and in-person grief companioning to  those who have lost loved ones.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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