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A new norm for funerals in the coronavirus age

A family celebrated a loved one during a small graveside service at Ohavi Sedeck Cemetery in West Roxbury on Wednesday.
A family celebrated a loved one during a small graveside service at Ohavi Sedeck Cemetery in West Roxbury on Wednesday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At a Danvers church this week, a small number of mourners gathered for a funeral, staying within the state’s coronavirus-era limit of 25 people, even though the service was for “a beloved member of our community,” said C.R. Lyons, president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association.

Instead of filling the church, most mourners watched from their homes. “We were able to have the service live-streamed on YouTube so that folks who were unable to attend the services were still able to participate,” he added.

Grieving remotely has abruptly become the new norm as limitations for public gatherings and fears of spreading the illness ripple through funeral homes, cemeteries, and families burying loved ones.

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“I’m seeing these families reeling in their isolation, and that’s really the hard part,” said Lyons, an owner of C.R. Lyons & Sons Funeral Directors in Danvers, which has been run by his family for generations.

While funeral directors had no plans to stop holding burials and small services — at least under current restrictions — they said traditional practices by necessity have been set aside.

“At funerals, people are so upset — they want to hug, they want to hold,” said Skip Eaton, a sixth-generation funeral director who owns Eaton Funeral Home in Needham.

For now, tears shed at home while watching a computer screen are substituting for tearful embraces.

Still, “social distancing is not emotional distancing," said David Brezniak of Brezniak Rodman Funeral Directors in Newton, invoking an observation made by a friend.

With no coronavirus deaths reported in Massachusetts, funeral directors said it was difficult to predict what the future might hold for their businesses. A shelter-in-place order could halt services and burials. A high number of coronavirus deaths could strain their resources.

For now, with the size of gatherings limited, funeral homes are trying “to make sure that these families have a vehicle to reach out so they can share stories of their loved ones,” said Julie Berger, a funeral director at Levine Chapels in Brookline. “That’s a real part of comfort.”

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Some old traditions have to be set aside. The guestbook filled with signatures, a staple at wakes that draw hundreds of people, has been set aside “because that implies people being on top of each other” to sign, Berger said.

Instead, online remembrance pages for obituaries on funeral home and media websites are assuming greater importance.

“The family will be forever grateful if you take the time, particularly during this challenging time, to recognize their loss,” said Glenn D. Burlamachi, a funeral director who owns the Concord Funeral Home in Concord and the Badger Funeral Homes of Littleton and Groton.

“We’re blessed today that we have other ways electronically to immediately do that,” he said, adding that families “will certainly appreciate a card or a phone call or an e-mail or an online condolence.”

Lyons said his funeral home has made arrangements to mail out funeral programs and memorial cards “so folks can have some tangible memory of the service, even though they weren’t able to be there.”

Meanwhile, funeral homes holding wakes and services this week have been careful to minimize health risks.

Eaton, who also co-owns Eaton & Mackay Funeral Home in Newton, said kneelers were removed at wakes because those pausing to offer prayers often lean their arms on a casket, which could become a point of disease transmission.

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And only a few mourners at a time are allowed in a viewing room with the deceased’s family members, who are several feet away, he added. As they enter the room, visitors walk past a sign reminding them to not shake hands or hug. To be sure the message is received, a funeral home staff member gently reminds them to take note of the sign.

Burlamachi said that at his funeral homes, “we are suggesting to families that services at this point should be family only, with possibly a public service at a later date."

Many mourners may not need that suggestion. On Sunday, before Governor Charlie Baker imposed a 25-person limit for public gatherings, only eight people attended visiting hours at one of Burlamachi’s funeral homes.

“We’re kind of using that as a benchmark for letting families know that the general public might not come,” he added.

Still, he said, families “are moving forward with private services, which is good because they need to."

Brezniak, a member of the state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, began making calls last week to ensure that “funeral homes were canceling their chapel services and doing things at gravesides, which of course most of them had done.”

Nearly every day, funeral homes receive updates from government officials, and some guidelines vary. Baker set 25 people as the public gathering threshold, while President Trump suggested in a news conference that the number be no more than 10.

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As memorial gatherings are held for those who die of the coronavirus, a US Centers for Disease Control website says in a frequently-asked-questions section that “there is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19.”

As with funeral homes, cemeteries are adjusting their practices.

“I’m trying to be sensitive first of all to everybody’s health concerns,” said Dave McKenna, who owns John M. Ross and Son, a cemetery management and maintenance service in Danvers that handles burials at about 20 Jewish cemeteries.

“The families have traditions and they need closure with the burial, but it all has to be done in a safe manner,” said McKenna, who has worked with his family’s burial business for 55 years, since he was 15. “We need to work together to make sure everyone’s needs are met.”

Per Jewish tradition, some families want to fill in the grave after the casket is lowered, or to begin that process with “a symbolic shovel full of soil,” he said.

For safety reasons, McKenna has purchased new shovels with plastic handles “so I can sanitize them before and after the service,” he said, adding that “we may have to adjust that policy.”

At Sharon Memorial Park, the largest Jewish cemetery in New England, officials have decided to fill in graves before families gather for graveside services.

Grounds crews leave the area while families are present to limit interaction and the potential to spread the coronavirus.

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Fred Lappin, president and chief executive of Knollwood Cemetery Corp., which operates Sharon Memorial Park and Knollwood Memorial Park in Canton, said that “we understand all these changes are difficult, especially given the nature of why they are here.”

He added that “we emphasize to the families that these are steps to protect them as well as to protect us.”

Knollwood Cemetery Corp. is making sure everyone knows what to expect before each graveside service, Lappin said: “We don’t want there to be any surprises for the families or the funeral directors when they arrive at our cemeteries."

Funeral homes, cemeteries, and burial companies emphasized, however, that changes are sometimes made daily, and that unknowns could drastically affect future funerals.

“If there’s a secure-in-place policy set,” McKenna said, “are we even going to be allowed out to do burials? And if we aren’t, what’s going to happen?”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.