Local Ministries

Ministry tackles pandemic with flexibility, creativity

COVID-19 intensified responsibilities for staff of funeral homes and Catholic cemeteries.

by Therese Horvat

While their jobs regularly involve helping families and individuals who are mourning, COVID-19 intensified responsibilities for staff of funeral homes and Catholic cemeteries. As they lived with the uncertainties, personal risks and restrictions during the pandemic, these workers strove to continue to provide compassionate service to those who had lost loved ones. 

Mary H. Brennan, co-founder and owner of Kevin Brennan Family Funeral Home in Topeka, believes that COVID compounded the grief of families. They often were not able to be with those who were dying; they faced limitations, restrictions and quarantines; and they delayed scheduling services.

“This made things all the harder for people,” said Brennan.

These stressors likewise affected workers assisting with funeral and burial arrangements.

Competing expectations

Limitations on numbers of persons allowed to attend public gatherings varied throughout the pandemic. This required families to make difficult decisions about who could attend services. Whereas workers in funeral homes and at Catholic cemeteries traditionally did everything they could to accommodate families, they were sometimes cast in roles as enforcers of restrictions. In what has always been a very customer-oriented industry,  it was a challenge to manage these competing expectations.

Parker Amos, president of Amos Family Funeral Home in Shawnee, said that attendance restrictions were the most challenging requirement for his staff.

“Our team takes pride in being part of the solution and not the problem,” he noted. “We don’t do our job to tell families ‘no.’ Limiting attendance at services had an impact on them and on us.”

Amos experienced this personally when his wife’s mother died in December 2020. At the time, guidelines permitted up to 45 people at the service. This necessitated tough decisions and prevented some close family members from attending.

Keeping up with the changing phases of the pandemic almost became a full-time job, Amos recalled. Guidance from the National Funeral Directors Association was very helpful. The Shawnee funeral home complied with guidelines from the CDC; state, county and local governments; and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas when engaging with Catholic parishes. Navigating the sometimes differing protocols proved to be a moving target.

Flexing staff schedules

Early in the pandemic, Sharon Vallejo, president of Catholic Cemeteries of Northeast Kansas, persisted in obtaining essential business designation for her organization. Because Catholic Cemeteries has nine locations in three counties, this required contacting officials across several jurisdictions.

Even though the cemeteries gained recognition as an essential business and could operate within normal business hours, Vallejo never took for granted the health and well-being of clients, employees and their families.

“When the necessities were met and burials for the day completed,” she explained, “we excused staff to return home to their families. They received a full day’s pay even though they may have worked reduced hours.”

Amos Family Funeral Home split its staff of 12 into two groups, with six employees working a week, then off a week with coverage provided by the other six workers. The funeral home adopted this approach for approximately a year. During this time, half the staff did the work of the full team in an environment complicated by COVID mandates and restrictions.

Technology to the rescue

Introducing the streaming of services made a big difference for families and staff. Brennan remembered a funeral for which the attendance maximum of 85 had been met. Additional guests chose to stand outside and listen to the memorials through exterior speakers. Others returned to their cars, remained parked and linked to the streamed service.

Father Dan Gardner found that livestreaming was helpful as well in rural communities where people adapted to restrictions. Father Gardner is pastor of St. Ann Parish in Hiawatha and St. Leo Parish, Horton. At first, services took place in funeral homes instead of the churches. When services initially returned to the churches, not many people outside the family attended, mindful of size limitations for gatherings.

“People were pretty flexible,” said Father Gardner. They were also creative with technology. One family arranged for a person in Kentucky to provide music for a funeral at St. Leo via the internet.

In addition to streaming services, Amos Family Funeral Home used technology to meet with clients via Zoom to make funeral arrangements. Brennan’s continued to offer in-person meetings with visitors and staff gathered around a large conference room table to facilitate social distancing. Embalmers followed personal protective equipment guidelines to help ensure safety.

“We found ways to make all of this work as we figured out how to help people,” Brennan said. She said that hugs and handshakes, however — normal expressions of sympathy extended by funeral home workers as appropriate and most often welcomed — were in short supply throughout the pandemic.   

Prayer adds value

Prayer remained an important part of the mix. Brennan noted that her team prays regularly for the families they serve and for the deceased.

Whether making arrangements by phone, electronically or in-person, Catholic Cemeteries’ family service advisers offered and experienced comfort by praying with loved ones of the deceased.

“This prayer recognized God’s will in all things,” said Vallejo, “and asked him to comfort our hearts and minds in accepting the things that cannot be explained or comprehended.”

Other prayer opportunities were temporarily put on hold. Throughout most of 2020 and into the new year, Catholic Cemeteries canceled memorial Masses offered in mausoleum chapels and services for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. These services are gradually resuming.

Facing new challenges

As several COVID restrictions lifted or relaxed, families began scheduling postponed memorial and burial services. This past summer, Catholic Cemeteries experienced a rush of people calling to make pre-arrangements, perhaps fearful of a COVID resurgence.

Funeral homes and Catholic Cemeteries continue to sanitize space and surfaces routinely and have hand sanitizer available. They tend to follow the preference of families on wearing masks or may require staff to wear them. At the same time, they face new challenges due to supply chain shortages, delivery delays and the prospects of increased costs.

“Throughout the pandemic, we were able to do our job,” said Amos. “It just wasn’t normal. It required adaptations by families and on our part. Everybody — funeral homes, churches, cemeteries — stepped up in this group effort to do our best to accommodate and serve families.”

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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