QUINCY -- COVID-19, which has suddenly changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, is affecting the funeral home industry as well.
While some states have barred funerals and memorial services until the end of the month, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has mandated how many people can gather in one space at one time. Initially that number was 250 people, but on March 16, Pritzker ordered that all groups of people should be limited to 50 people or fewer.
His mandate was followed by a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Funeral Directors Association that no one should gather in groups of 10 or more.
COVID-19 is spread through droplets in the air, so when a person carrying the virus coughs or sneezes, nearby people are at risk of becoming infected.
Funeral home directors throughout the region say they are still adapting to COVID-19 restrictions while helping grieving families.
Will Spear, owner of Hansen-Spear Funeral Directors, said, "Visitations are one of the harder-hit things right now because having a visitation in the traditional sense is not feasible right now. We are dealing with these restrictions the best we can."
He said a significant part of grieving is giving the deceased person's family a time to meet with friends and relatives.
Instead, staff at Hansen-Spear and other area funeral homes are organizing private services, including visitation and burial, for the deceased person's immediate family and -- should the family choose -- a public celebration of life event once the high risk of infection is over.
"We want to have that visiting opportunity for friends to come and share their grief with the family," Spear said.
At O'Donnell Cookson Life Celebration Home in Quincy and James O'Donnell Funeral Home in Hannibal, Mo., staff members are still staging the large gathering rooms with photos and other memorabilia even though they are limiting the number who can attend services.
James O'Donnell said, "We are still staging the room with those items because we want to give the family the opportunity to walk the path of their loved one's life and to be reminded by the pictures of the memories they shared. The experience of seeing those photos and providing keepsakes to the family to have at home can be a healing experience for the family."
O'Donnell also owns funeral homes in Monroe City and Palmyra, Mo.
At Hunter Funeral Homes in Golden, and Mendon, Ill., Patrick Myers and staff say they are expanding visitation hours from the traditional one or two hours to four or five.
"If the family opts to, we've had private family viewing and then made the building available, without the family present, throughout the day," Myers said. "Normally, with a visitation you have dozens of people crammed into one or two rooms, but now by making our building available we are hoping that we can have one or two people come through at a time."
Just like at Hansen-Spear, Myers said some families are opting for private graveside services and then larger celebration of life services later.
"In some cases it really does make sense to take care of the burial, put the deceased to rest, and then have more of the traditional full service later on, especially if this thing does seem to drag on longer than expected," Myers said.
While the virus and continuing influenza viruses have disrupted the funeral industry, some funeral homes are using video streaming services.
Ryan Bibb, owner of Bibb-Veach Funeral Home in Bowling Green, Mo., said, "With the ever-changing situation that we find ourselves in, livestreaming services is something that we have grasped onto in hopes of reaching more families and friends that can't be in attendance because of CDC guidelines."
Bibb also owns Collier's Funeral Home in Louisiana, Mo.
Bibb has had three families livestream funeral services using Facebook Live, and he says they have been well-received.
"Limiting attendance at funeral services really goes against everything in our nature in the funeral home industry. We want people to be able to come together to celebrate a life," said Bibb, who added that average funeral and visitation attendance for his locations ranges between 100 to 150 people.
"I honestly didn't know how the videos were going to be received. I didn't want it to come across as being disrespectful," Bibb said. He said he is contemplating continuing to use streaming services, if a family chooses, after the pandemic is over.
Many of the region's funeral home owners also say they are beefing up cleaning procedures.
Jack Hamilton, who owns Hamilton Funeral Homes in Camp Point, Augusta and Clayton, Ill., said he is continuously cleaning his buildings with sanitizing products and has hand sanitizer available.
"We are just trying to work with this just like everyone is. We are hoping that we are doing enough to stop the spread of the virus," Hamilton said.
Every funeral home owner and manager interviewed said that while restrictions are in place barring large gatherings, it has become vitally important for friends and neighbors to reach out to grieving families.
O'Donnell said, "One of the healing aspects is when we gather together and acknowledge our shared loss when someone dies. Due to the restrictions, there is a void, and it is up to us as a community to fill that void utilizing technology to share tributes on memory pages, writing tributes online, but even things like writing a letter or sending a card that used to be considered outdated are more meaningful than ever before."
Ann Haugh, co-owner of Duker and Haugh Funeral Home in Quincy, agreed.
"I think it is fine to go back to the old ways of reaching out -- send a card or a note, call and follow up with the family after the service," Haugh said. She also encouraged those who may struggle to convey feelings in cards or telephone calls to keep it simple.
"Don't worry about thinking of the right thing to say," Haugh said. "Tell them that you are sorry for the loss, that you wish you could be there for them. If you encourage them to call you, leave your phone number because with so many landlines not existing anymore, people may not have the right phone number and know how to contact you. Tell them you are willing to listen to them talk and cry over the phone, even if you can't be there as the shoulder for them to cry on."