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Home Editor's Picks Coronavirus pandemic impacts the grieving process

Coronavirus pandemic impacts the grieving process

Meghan Finnerty of Finnerty & Stevens Funeral Home in Great Barrington. (Emily Thurlow)

GREAT BARRINGTON — When a loved one dies, the nearly automatic and well-intended response is to offer condolences to those affected. And just because a global pandemic has been declared, doesn’t mean grief can be put on hold. So what does that mean for local funeral homes?
For Meghan Finnerty, president of Finnerty & Stevens Funeral Home in Great Barrington and fourth generation director of the business, this past week meant adapting — and quickly.
First, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston suspended Mass to try to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield followed soon after.
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 15, Finnerty & Stevens held calling hours without restrictions. Attendance at the service didn’t include many above the age of 50, said Finnerty, but noted that she wasn’t certain if it was linked to the pandemic or the fact that the service was held for a 21-year-old.
In the interim, staff at Finnerty went through disinfecting the funeral home from top to bottom and recommended distancing.
Shortly after that service, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a ban on gatherings of 25 people or more starting Tuesday, March 17, which put the kibosh on traditional calling hours. Some obituaries even indicated that services would be private “out of concern for the health and safety of friends and family due to the threat of coronavirus.”
Knowing that there were other services initially planned for later in the week, Finnerty ran to Staples and bought an iPad, so she could film Mass and graveside services.
“When you see someone in pain, you want to comfort them, offer them a hug, but since that’s not an option right now, we wanted to be able to give people an opportunity to still be a part of those services,” said Finnerty. “Families still need to grieve.”
When she offered the service to a family on Monday, they complied, she said. With the help of a few of her siblings that were both forced to stay home as a result of Baker’s order to close all schools to close for three weeks — Kristin Finnerty, a second-grade teacher at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington, and Daniel Lanoue, a wrestling and baseball coach as well as a physical education teacher for Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield — Finnerty was able to film services for a client.
Although cameras were installed roughly two decades ago following the construction of the addition to the funeral home, Finnerty said that the process to upload some of the taped services proved to be challenging in the past.
While admittedly she hasn’t ironed out a permanent long-term plan in dealing with the current changing circumstances, Finnerty says she is also looking to purchase wireless microphones and other pieces of technology. One issue that she said she anticipates arising is filming in a nearly-empty church. With less people there to absorb echoes, external microphones will help, she said.
On Thursday, March 19, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency named mortuary workers as “critical infrastructure workers.”
For more than a decade, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) has worked to ensure that during any mass-fatality event, mortuary workers are considered critical infrastructure workers, according to a statement issued by NFDA.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic began to intensify globally and reach American shores, NFDA intensified its call to federal officials to solidify this classification,” the statement read. “This underscores the vital role funeral directors and others who work in deathcare play in responding to the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”
Mortuary workers, which the guidance defines as “Workers performing mortuary services, including funeral homes, crematoriums, and cemetery workers” and “Workers who coordinate with other organizations to ensure the proper recovery, handling, identification, transportation, tracking, storage, and disposal of human remains and personal effects; certify cause of death; and facilitate access to mental/behavioral health services to the family members, responders, and survivors of an incident,” are included in the “Healthcare/Public Health” category along with doctors, nurses, people performing testing and researchers.
The role that funeral directors and cemetery and crematory workers are playing during the COVID-19 pandemic is critical, said NFDA CEO Christine Pepper.
“While their work may be overlooked, they are truly on the front lines in helping to care for pandemic victims and grieving families,” said Pepper in a statement.
That same day, the Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration also issued new guidelines at its 142 cemeteries, nationwide, to only conduct committal services for groups of 10 or less.
Starting on Monday, March 23, the administration also noted that the rendering of military funeral honors will not be conducted until further notice in response to the pandemic.
At the recommendation of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, the Berkshire County Funeral Directors have also penned a letter to nursing homes to designate a room in the nursing home to hold patients who have died until an individual funeral home is able to safely transfer the patient to their facility.
“This would eliminate the need to be on residential floods, which would decrease the risk of transmission to your residents,” the letter reads. “This is especially important in regards to funeral home professionals since we are constantly in contact with the bodies of the deceased and their families and therefore have a greater risk of being asymptomatic carriers of the virus.”
Finnerty says that as circumstances continue to be ever-evolving, she noted the value of staying calm.
“Remaining calm has always been a part of this job, but now we have to take things moment by moment,” she said.

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