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Funeral Homes, families, adjust to coronavirus restrictions

Walrath & Stewart Funeral Home, located at 51 Fremont St. in Gloversville, as seen Friday morning. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

GLOVERSVILLE — While residents across the state are adjusting to restrictions on everyday life amid the coronavirus outbreak, some face the additional burden of losing a loved one during a time when typical services bringing family and friends closer together to pay their last respects cannot be held.

“We are not able to invite the general public to any service,” said John Stewart, funeral director and location leader for Walrath and Stewart Funeral Home. “We can do a private service for family and a memorial service or celebration of life at a later time when the health situation is over.”

Although funeral homes were exempted from an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo closing all non-essential businesses on March 22 to slow the spread of the coronavirus, funeral homes like Walrath and Stewart are following social distancing protocol while limiting services to immediate family who are asked to maintain the social distance of at least six feet between them with no more than 10 individuals present at a time based on federal guidelines.

Similarly, houses of worship across the state were not ordered closed, but the governor strongly recommended that no congregate services be held and social distancing maintained.

While families may sometimes choose to have a private service under normal circumstances, Stewart said restrictions on public gatherings are now limiting families to holding only private services for the time being with many planning to hold a public memorial service or celebration of life at a later time. Under these circumstances Stewart acknowledged that the grieving process for anyone facing a loss may be extended.

“Postponing any type of service would be similar to when a death occurs in the winter and burial takes place in the spring. Without that finality it can be difficult for family or close friends when they have to relive that death again when the final service is held,” said Stewart. “A funeral service or visitation enables family and friends to express their feelings over the loss of the loved one. It gives the proper atmosphere and timing for that to take place.”

Although it may prolong the grieving process, Stewart said offering a public service of some sort at a later date can be helpful for immediate family members while giving extended family members or friends an important sense of closure.

“It’s always important, even if it’s just a brief moment, to speak with a family member or friend so they can express themselves in any way,” said Stewart.

Stewart said most families experiencing loss in the roughly four weeks since funeral homes began implementing these temporary changes were aware of the restrictions they would be asked to follow before calling to start making arrangements.

“It would be a difficult situation to inform someone of that if they were not aware of the regulations that are in place. Every family that I have met with is aware of the restrictions when they come in, so they’ve basically planned what they are going to do already,” said Stewart.

Even the process of making arrangements has been altered to minimize direct contact between staff members and families, with planning taking place by phone, video conference or online.

“We’re here for them with any questions,” said Stewart. “They can call us 24 hours per day and we guide them step-by-step through all the processes.”

To ensure the safety of family members during private services, Stewart said the funeral home has installed automatic hand sanitizing stations at building entrances where doors are left open to prevent possible contamination of door handles.

Inside the parlor, chairs have been repositioned to maintain a distance of at least six feet between individuals, a prayer wall for the bereaved to kneel and place their hands on has been removed to limit common contact and signs remind family members that hugging or handshakes are currently discouraged.

Before the service, Stewart said staff members ask families to essentially refrain from touching anything, including the deceased. Although the departed pose no health risks to the living, common touching by the bereaved could allow contagions to be unwittingly spread between individuals.

“It makes [for] a difficult conversation, but the families do understand,” said Stewart.

In addition to new procedures for keeping families safe, Stewart said the funeral home is following new protocols to keep staff members safe.

“Institutions locally have come up with new regulations and protocol when we transfer a body from those locations for everyone’s safety,” said Stewart.

Personal protective equipment is another priority for funeral staff while handling the deceased and Walrath and Stewart Funeral Home currently has sufficient supplies. Storage space could be a concern if Fulton County experiences a surge in deaths related to the coronavirus, but Stewart said county officials are prepared to supply refrigerated trucks if the need should arise.

“Of course, it’s our hope that the situation will level off,” said Stewart. “We’re hoping and praying that the situation can return to normal as soon as possible.”

As citizens across the country navigate the new normal of life during the coronavirus pandemic, individuals like Fulton County Emergency Management Director Steven Santa Maria are more deeply entrenched in ensuring local, state and federal guidelines are complied with while ensuring local facilities have the equipment they need to keep healthcare workers, first responders and residents safe.

“I kind of deal with this stuff on a daily basis,” said Santa Maria.

Santa Maria and his family encountered another facet of the changes brought about by the coronavirus after his mother, Gloria, passed away on March 24 at age 79 following a battle with cancer.

“Unfortunately, it happened during this time where we have restrictions on the number of people you can have gathered for any reason, including funerals,” said Santa Maria. “We knew my mother was sick, but we hadn’t even though about not being able to have a normal service. It just goes to show you on how many different levels the coronavirus is impacting life.”

The family made arrangements through Walrath and Stewart Funeral Home, where Santa Maria said compassionate staff members helped them navigate the process.

“We were able to get through it, but it certainly creates challenges for families that have to go through this,” said Santa Maria. “She was a beautiful lady that impacted a lot of lives.”

The retired elementary school teacher for the Greater Johnstown School District for over 30 years had many lifelong friends and a large extended family, most of whom Santa Maria said were unable to attend the services.

“Going through what we went through you feel sad for people who aren’t allowed to come,” said Santa Maria. “It’s kind of hard.”

Limiting the service to just immediate family still meant accounting for attendance by 17 individuals, leading the family to visit the funeral home in separate groups. Adequate space for social distancing at the Foothills United Methodist Church allowed the full family to safely attend a private service officiated by Rev. Moon Ho Kim.

“All in all it was a beautiful ceremony and I think my mother would have been happy,” said Santa Maria.

Although the circumstances of the arrangements made the loss more challenging, Santa Maria said limiting the size of the services was an easy decision to make.

“It is the right thing to do as hard as it is,” said Santa Maria. “We’re close as a family and the thought of having to leave somebody out is not pleasant, but you don’t want to spread the virus to somebody else or have somebody bring it home to their family. We don’t want somebody to become terminally ill because of our actions.”

Once restrictions on gatherings and non-essential businesses are lifted Santa Maria said his family plans to hold a celebration of life for his mother to provide an opportunity for closure for extended family and friends.

In the meantime, Santa Maria stressed the importance of following social distancing protocol, washing hands and limiting exposure to others to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s a very tough time for everybody, it effects so many people on so many different levels,” said Santa Maria. “We’ve really got to pay attention to the rules, making sure we’re doing everything we can so perhaps in the near future another family won’t have to go through what my family had to go through.”

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