funeral home impact

Mandy Snider, Al Snider’s widow, gets a hug from her daughter, Michelle Thomas, while Gail and Billy Cochran express their condolences from their vehicle at a drive-by visitation held for Al Snider last week.

Pierce County’s funeral directors have been grappling with how to respectfully bury the dead, honor a grieving family’s wishes, and still comply with state and federal guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Schools are closed, some businesses shuttered and many locals working from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but not every aspect of daily living can stop on a dime.

“Nothing stops mourning,” says Mark Godwin of Pearson-Dial Funeral Home. “We’re trying everything we can do to protect ourselves and others and follow the guidelines.”

With no specific guidance from state or federal officials, approximately 20 funeral homes in Southeast Georgia agreed to provide the same services to families for the foreseeable future. Those arrangements  — private graveside services for family only  — were implemented last Monday.

“Nobody knew exactly what to do,” Godwin says. “We all got together and decided … let’s come up with something.”

The collaborative effort was organized by Jonathan Roundtree of Miles-Odum Funeral Home and Rodney Music at Music Funeral Home, both in Waycross.

“We thought it was in the best interest of the community for all funeral homes to agree,” Roundtree says. “Everybody who’s on that list seems to be abiding by it  — doing our part to help slow the spread.”

Area funeral directors are doing their best to follow Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Georgia Funeral Directors Association (GFDA) and National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) recommendations coupled with a common sense approach.

“My main thing to folks is to use common sense,” says Adam Hart, owner of Hart Funeral Home in Blackshear. “We encourage those who are sick or more vulnerable to please refrain from attending and all hugs/handshaking, etc. be avoided at this time.”

“We hated to omit the public, but at this time that’s what we’ve got to do,” Godwin adds. “We’re trying to keep everybody happy, but we’re trying to keep this virus from spreading.”

Public visitations have been discontinued, but the Al Snider family, served last week by Hart Funeral Home, chose to conduct a drive-by visitation at their home. Mourners waved to the family from their cars as they pulled through the circular driveway of the Snider home in Pierce County. Hart Funeral Home also live-streamed Al’s graveside service for the public to view online.

Directors advise family members to stand an appropriate distance apart at graveside services when possible, and obituaries published now don’t list the time of service so as to ensure it remains private for family members only.

Blackshear Mayor Kevin Grissom issued an executive order last week banning gatherings of 10 or more people on city property, but that order was later revised to grant licensed funeral directors the ability to conduct graveside services provided directors “make every effort to comply with the COVID-19 guidelines issued by the CDC.” (See related story).

In an effort to ease the trauma to grieving families, funeral homes are offering families the option of a memorial service open to the public at a later date when the pandemic has passed at no additional cost. They’re also offering to postpone all arrangements until these restrictions are lifted, but Godwin says he hasn’t had a family choose to postpone arrangements entirely yet.

Hart Funeral home had one family request to postpone all arrangements for now. Reginald King, manager for Rainge Memorial Chapel, reports no family has requested postponing all arrangements yet.

Most funeral homes have the ability to hold a body for at least a couple of months. Many did so in the early 2000s when heavy rainfall caused flooding and graves couldn’t be dug.

“You dug down a foot and were in water … some of those were two months we had to hold the bodies,” Godwin recalls.

No Pierce County funeral home has been asked to prepare a body that tested positive for the virus, but should that happen, Godwin says they’ll follow the same sanitation protocols they do for any potential contagion such as HIV.

And, while other industries and the general public may be struggling to find grocery items or household staples, funeral homes seem to be able to get their supplies for the time being.

“We’ve got plenty on hand and our supplies are coming in normally,” Godwin says.

Hart also says he’s stocked for the foreseeable future.

King says his only challenge is finding personal protective equipment such as hand sanitizer. Those items have been in short supply for weeks as businesses and organizations ramp up their sanitization procedures in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

Funeral homes currently participating in this agreement include: Blackshear funeral homes Hart Funeral Home, Pearson-Dial Funeral Home and Rainge Memorial Chapel; Waycross providers Harrington Family Funeral Services, Miles-Odum Funeral Home, Music Funeral Home; and Allison Memorial Chapel in St. Marys, Coastal Camden Funeral Home in Kingsland, Crosby Funeral Home in Alma, Frye Funeral Home in Nahunta, Howard & Jones Funeral Home in Jesup, Nobles Funeral Home in Baxley, Relihan Funeral Home in Pearson, Ricketson Funeral Home in Douglas, Roundtree Funeral Home in Homerville, Royal Funeral Home in Jesup, Shepard-Roberson Funeral Home in Folkston, Sunset Funeral Home in Kingsland and Swain Funeral Home in Baxley.