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Coronavirus restricts funeral homes physically and financially

As coronavirus restrictions continue, local funeral homes suffer from loss of service

By: Lauren Davis and Lee Zurik

Originally Published: June 18, 2020

Social distancing, face masks, and simpler or smaller services are the new normal for many funeral homes across the nation due to the coronavirus. The funeral business model is changing, and some family-owned funeral homes worry that the decrease in services will also become the new trend.

Funeral homes are seeing fewer demands for their services due to the pandemic, despite the ever-rising death toll. To limit the spread of the coronavirus, parlors are adapting to social distancing restrictions by limiting customer contact and offering restricted services.

According to Ed Larson, the director and owner of the McReynolds-Nave and Larson Funeral Home in Clarksville, Tennessee, more people are opting out of ornate services such as, celebrations of life and visitations because of the pandemic. This decline hurt the bottom line in many local and family owned funeral homes.

“Since they couldn’t have a visitation or public funeral, they opted for something more simple and direct, so there was a decline in the services that people selected,” said Larson.

McReynolds-Nave and Larson funeral home has served the greater Clarksville area for over 100 years. It is family-owned and operated by both Larson and his wife, Rissa Nave Larson. He has been with the funeral home for 43 years.

Social distancing is a hurdle for many funeral directors such as Larson. The smaller services cut down profit and cut out a place for families to grieve.

“We try to keep it to just families, 10 people or less, but you know most families are bigger than that,” Larson said. “For a while there, it was pretty tough. It was really sad for families because they couldn’t say their final goodbyes.”

Many families have adapted to different ways of saying their final goodbyes to their loved ones. More people are opting out of traditional burial services and are now utilizing cremation services. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the cremation rate has increased in the past decade and it does not look to slow down any time soon.

Since 2010, the cremation rate has increased by 33%. By 2015, the percentage of cremation surpassed burial by about 2%. Before the spread of the coronavirus, the NFDA projected that by 2025, the cremation percentage will be at 63.5% and burial at 30.6%. These projected numbers are likely to change.

NFDA Secretary Dutch Nie says that the funeral directors’ association predicts that the coronavirus will only have a small impact on the projected cremation rate. At the end of June, the association will release an annual report detailing how the virus affected burial and cremation rates.

“Some of our initial figures show that about half of our members said that they saw somewhat of an increase in their cremation rates,” Nie said.

Funeral director Larson saw first-hand how there were more cremations than usual. “It’s increased some because of people who cannot do the full service, so they list it as direct disposition.”

Another issue many funeral homes are facing is the cost of the personal protective equipment. This equipment is needed for the staff to complete the embalming or cremation process, but it adds more expenses to the funeral services.

These expenses are causing people to look towards cheaper options during the unemployment crisis.

According to the NFDA, the median cost of a traditional burial service with a viewing is $7,150, where the median cost of a cremation service with a viewing is $5,150.

The extra costs of the equipment to handle the bodies amidst the pandemic puts directors, such as Larson, in a difficult situation. “Of course, that adds more expenses to our services that I can’t pass on. It’s just the cost of doing business,” Larson said.

One thing that many funeral directors won’t pass on is live streaming the services. According to Nie, many funeral homes have changed their whole business model due to this pandemic and have implemented new technology into the services and arrangement conferences. He says that these new services are unlikely to go away after the pandemic.

“We are now utilizing platforms where everyone can be included,” Nie said. “We are actually finding that will be something that will continue also because then the people that aren’t physically here can be in the decision-making right at the arrangement conference.”

Ed Larson says that he wants to do everything he can to help people in this pandemic who are grieving a loved one. “It’s a business, but we aren’t here for the money. We do it because we want to help folks.”

Even if that means keeping services smaller, utilizing live streaming and remaining socially distant. “It’s not just a business, it’s a way of life.”