Canceled and postponed funerals, more restrictive body collection procedures and changes in the way funerals are planned are among the results of new state guidelines aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

As of March 28, “The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is advising to make most of our arrangements after someone has passed away through electronic devices, and only if necessary to meet in person,” said mortician Kent Cease, owner and director of Cease Family Funeral Home in Park Rapids. “We are advised to do it electronically or over the phone, with verbal permissions, verbal directives, and not having a face-to-face meeting with families.”

Any face-to-face interaction should be with as small a group of family members as possible and of minimum duration, he said.

“People have been really understanding,” said Cease. “They understand that it has to be this way until further notice.”

Public funerals were already put on hold before MDH issued its March 28 guidance, but now private visitations have also been restricted.

“Currently, the MDH really recommends that we try to put all services off until normal visiting, normal people-to-people contact, can be done, in 30 days,” said Tim Pearson, owner and director of Jones-Pearson Funeral Home.

So, “we can’t have a public viewing or a public service,” he said. “We can only have family up to 10 people come in for a viewing or a service, and during the service those people need to be spaced apart from each other to stay outside that six-foot personal space requirement. That makes it difficult for a lot of families that feel they really need to confront the reality and finality of their loved ones’ death.”

Pearson said another result may be a decrease in the number of traditional funerals, with the MDH recommending cremation of anyone confirmed to have died with COVID-19.

“It’s a new paradigm for us again,” said Cease. “We’re still dealing with the public, definitely. We’re still open … (but) it’s a different world right now.”

Extreme caution

For example, Cease said, “We have to take universal precautions for our safety (while) making a removal of a person that passed away at the nursing home. We’ve got to be gowned up with our personal protective equipment (PPE). We’re treating all people that passed away as if we could infect other people that are caring for them, or we could be infected, also.”

“They want us to treat every decedent as if they have died from COVID-19,” Pearson said about MDH’s latest guidance. “They’re really encouraging us to use extreme caution in handling and preparing the body of a deceased.”

He went on to list the precautions MDH is requiring licensed funeral directors to follow. They recommend:

  • Wearing full PPE while handling a body, including a face shield, mask, heavy duty or double gloves, and an impermeable gown to protect themselves from contact with droplets that may come out of a body while it is being moved.

  • Covering the decedent’s mouth with a disinfectant pad and placing the body in a sealed vinyl disposition pouch before removing their body from the place of death, again to prevent the release of droplets and to avoid contaminating the mortuary cot.

  • If a body is to be embalmed and buried, using a highly concentrated solution of formaldehyde.

“So, we’re probably going to be using chemicals that are stronger in their capacity to disinfect the body than normal,” said Pearson.

Delayed funerals

“Most families have wanted to postpone services,” said Pearson. “For example, we had a service that was going to be held on a Saturday afternoon a week and a half ago. That has been put off now for the middle of July.”

Other services have either been canceled or postponed, at least for the duration of the current 30-day social distancing period.

Meanwhile, Jones-Pearson Funeral Home is planning the community’s first burial of a COVID-19 death.

“This involves a man who actually died in Wisconsin,” said Pearson. “The family is shipping his body here for burial. Because of travel restrictions, the family is not going to be meeting for a service. They’ve asked that I read Scripture and pray over his grave at the time of burial. Then, again, they will come back this summer, and we’ll have a formal graveside service at that time.”

Rapidly evolving situation

“I think the fear part has subsided a little bit,” said Cease. “I think we know a little bit more than we did a few weeks ago. We don’t have to be as fearful. We just have to use our head and act accordingly.”

“So many of the people that I have talked to are feeling very, very optimistic,” Pearson agreed. “They have a lot of faith in what our government, public health officials and medical professionals are doing on the front lines in battling this disease.”

He cited encouraging results testing the antimalarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19.

“I think many people are encouraged by the inroads that have been made in treatment,” Pearson said. “Until there’s a real vaccine, of course, everybody realizes there’s going to be a very realistic threat to our country, and in fact, the entire world. But people have such faith in our medical professionals, institutions, schools, universities and research colleges. I think we all feel that, given a fair amount of time, hopefully, in 12 or 18 months, we will have a very effective vaccine that can, hopefully, defeat this disease that has been so, so deadly and so contagious throughout the world.”

Noting that the situation has been evolving rapidly from week to week, Cease said, “We’re just doing what we need to do right now to serve the immediate needs of families, as safely as possible. We’re just hoping and praying, taking it a day at a time, and protecting the vulnerable people that are the most susceptible to direct transmission of this disease as best we can.”

“It’s certainly a scary and uncertain time,” said Pearson. “We just have to pray that we rise above this in a short time.”