Funeral homes grapple with COVID-19

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The coronavirus has brought plenty to a halt, but there are some life certainties that a national emergency cannot stop.

“You can’t stop death,” Nathaniel Moody, owner of Brown’s Funeral Home in Grand Rapids told News 8. “It’s coming … You can’t put a moratorium on that.”

Funeral directors are facing unique challenges with families planning to memorialize their loved ones who have died amid a national emergency with measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The biggest challenge is the fact that gatherings in Michigan are limited to 50 people, and even those people are encouraged to remain several feet apart and not touch one another.

It’s a setup that flies contrary to everything funeral services are all about.

“I’ve got to work with my families to help them understand that things have changed,” Moody said. “They have changed dramatically.”

Moody’s funeral chapel typically seats some 200 guests and it’s not unusual that the seats are full during a service. But the room has been rearranged to seat 50 with the chairs widely spaced apart.

“I don’t want anybody to get sick, so here at Brown’s Funeral Home we’re going to be in compliance with the law,” Moody said. “In times like these, for some families, it’s going to be very stressful.”

Spaced out seating at Brown’s Funeral Home Chapel in Grand Rapids. (March 17, 2020)
Spaced out seating at Brown’s Funeral Home Chapel in Grand Rapids. (March 17, 2020)

Browns’ staff is activating a work-around, encouraging those coming to pay their last respects to come for the visitation only and leave promptly so that others can come through. He said he plans to have guests leave out of a different door, so that mourners aren’t encouraged to mingle with one another.

In addition to Moody’s responsibilities at Brown’s, he is also a pastor and Grand Rapids city commissioner. He says stopping himself from embracing those in grief and shaking hands with community members has been difficult.

“If you’re carrying (COVID-19) or I’m carrying, we want to be careful. We don’t know who’s carrying. But it’s been hard for me to stand back and not want to shake your hand. Sometimes I mess up,” Moody said. “It’s a struggle. But you have to do it. And you’ve got to get to a place where you’ve got to feel comfortable with doing it until we get through this.”

Across town, the MKD Funeral Home is experiencing the same struggle. Owner Mike Matthysse said his staff is encouraging families to consider small, intimate gatherings now and perhaps a larger memorial service at a later time.

“Our way of life has been altered,” Matthysse said. “It doesn’t allow the natural grief process to take place.”

MKD is equipped with installed cameras that Matthysse says some families have chosen to use for livestreaming services. While it presents another option, he admits it is no substitute for families being together in person.

“It’s not the same. There’s nothing more that a family wants than to be able to gather with their family and friends,” Matthysse said. “When we have to do that in altered ways, it makes it difficult.”

At this point, no deaths in Michigan have been attributed to the coronavirus, but Matthysse and Moody both said they are prepared should an influx in deaths occur.

Both funeral directors said they would use ordinary precautions in handling an individual who died of coronavirus, and guidance from funeral experts indicates no heightened risk in having normal viewing services.


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