Even in grief, the rules of hand hygiene and social isolation apply.
That’s what thousands of funeral directors learned Monday when they joined a Facebook livestream to hear firsthand from the U.S. Centers for Disease, Control, and Prevention how coronavirus will change how Americans die and are buried.
The new disease, which has killed more than 6,500 people worldwide since it emerged in China in late 2019, has put an end to social gatherings around the world. In the United States, the CDC advised organizers to cancel or postpone any events of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks across the country. This extends to “large funerals,” said David Berendes, an epidemiologist with the CDC. (It also applies to weddings, which should also be canceled.)
Other countries are grappling with similar issues. In Italy, which has Europe’s largest elderly population, 300 people died on Monday alone, according to the New York Times. Morgues are overflowing and funerals are illegal after the country banned civil and religious ceremonies outright to stop the spread of the disease.
Berendes recommended digital solutions to the mortician’s dilemma: “If livestreaming and limiting events to immediate family is possible, we encourage that,” he said. For those who do visit funeral homes, Berendes recommends having hand sanitizer at the ready and staggering funeral services so that different families don’t overlap.
The CDC discourages mourners from “kissing, washing, and shrouding” someone who has died from confirmed or suspected coronavirus. “If washing the body or shrouding are important religious or cultural practices, families are encouraged to work with their community cultural and religious leaders and funeral home staff on how to reduce their exposure as much as possible,” according to the CDC. “At a minimum, people conducting these activities should wear disposable gloves.” But a disposable gown, googles, and masks may be necessary in some cases.
The real risk is posed not by the dead, but by the living, as we reported earlier this month. While corpses can spread communicable diseases, funeral directors are more concerned they’ll contract the virus from family members or caregivers of the deceased. The risk is there when the mortician picks up the body from the home or hospital morgue, and at the eventual funeral (though family members who have been exposed to the virus should, in theory, be in an at-home quarantine). This scenario has already played out in Spain, where 60 of the country’s 430 coronavirus cases were tied to a single funeral service, The Guardian reported on March 7.
Any anxiety morticians feel is only exacerbated by the growing shortage of essential supplies. “The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to a global disruption in the supply chain of personal protective equipment,” said Jill Shugart of the CDC’s National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety. While funeral directors are prioritized for personal protective equipment purchases, people like Matt Colvin, who stockpiled 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer, have made face masks, respirators, and other equipment increasingly hard to find.
Coronavirus poses serious risks—in death and in life. But as Arizona funeral director Joseph Stone recently told us, “This is the nature of the job we do.”