“This is a challenging time for everybody,” Kent Wiles, owner and funeral director of Wiles Remembrance Center in Farmington, said. Only five people are allowed inside the funeral home at one time, he said, and he makes masks, gloves and hand sanitizer available to anyone who comes in. “I want to recognize and do what we are suppose to do,” Wiles said of complying with the governor’s orders. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Funeral business owner Dana Chandler is seeing more families postponing services in hopes that COVID-19 will desist and restrictions on the number of mourners in attendance will be loosened or lifted to allow larger, face-to-face gatherings.

The owner of Weston-Chandler Funeral Homes Inc. in South Paris and Mechanic Falls also offers technology to families who decide to honor the deceased from afar, but he said many are foregoing high-tech options for the traditional gatherings.

“It is like a whole new world,” Chandler said. “We don’t do anything the way we used — from the handling of the deceased individual to how we work with the family is totally different 

“There is distance now. No handshakes. People are wearing face masks. We all look different, by the way as a side note. Did you realize that?” he asked.

“Out here in small towns, we don’t bury in the winter months. So our cemeteries are just starting to open at the end of this week and next week. That part of it hasn’t been odd, but not having wakes, not having funerals — we haven’t been able to do any of that,” he said.

Jim Lynch of Pinette Dillingham & Lynch Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Jim Lynch of Pinette Dillingham & Lynch Funeral Home in Lewison said COVID-19 has placed all undertakers in the same boat.

“Most of the majority of people are waiting (to bury loved ones), Lynch said. “They know how their parents felt about church and wanting be at church so they are willing to wait and postpone things, which we can do. If they want to have services, we offer online, live webcasting for the service. People can view the service in the privacy of their own home. 

“However,” he said, “in this type of profession, this is a very close-knit, emotion-driven ceremony and ritual that requires people to give hugs and so forth, and it goes against every grain in our body as far as ‘no, you can’t do that, and we will have to wait until this blows over.’ It is like having a wedding and no one going to the reception. It is a family event; unfortunately, it is a sad one.”

Like all funeral homes across Maine, Chandler is  limiting the number of mourners to comply with Maine’s COVID-19 guidelines, which allow only five people in the funeral home and 10 at the burial site — and that includes funeral staff. 

“We give them the choice whether they want to come do it face to face, with the social distancing — or if they want to do email or however they want to do it,” Chandler said. “We still have 90% or better who who want to do face to face.

“A lot of our folks are just wait-and-see: ‘If this is going to drag on for longer than we are comfortable, then we will have you do just the burial. We would rather wait and have the whole family and friends present.’”

“Why would we try to go through this alone,” Chandler asked?

PLACED ON HOLD

The deceased are temporarily placed in winter receiving vaults or tombs for families who have decided to delay funeral services until COVID-10 restrictions are eased. Cemeteries offer receiving vaults and some funeral homes might have their own winter shelters.

Kent Wiles, owner of Wiles Remembrance Centers, with locations in Jay, Farmington and Dixfield, said, “In our facility, we have sheltering areas, winter tombs, that we use through the winter months at the funeral homes. We shelter for embalmed remains only for an extended period of time because there just wouldn’t be refrigeration space available.

“You would have some issues if that really lingered beyond a certain period of time,” he said. “We have some variations and just say, ‘Look, we will kind of hold for a period of time until we see where this (coronavirus outbreak) really goes and then come back and revisit it.’

“We did have a funeral mass the other day at the local Catholic church, where it was just the family, and the priest and one of our directors that did that, and we are probably going to wait another month to six weeks to see about the potential burial.”

Besides burials and technology, cremation is another option for families during the outbreak, Wiles pointed out.

“We can maybe do the memorial service and memorial visitation maybe even in September,” Wiles said. “We have had a couple of families that have chosen that time frame with the positive thought that by then, they can still have something for friends and the extended family so that everybody can kind of grieve collectively.”

Wiles agreed that technology isn’t always the answer to grieving for family and friends.

“The handshake, the hug, the arm around a widow to provide comfort, that is part of the process,” he said. ”It has created a whole new challenge. Our instinct is to be caring and supportive physically in that regard. We’ve had to abruptly change our methods in that way.

“I grew up in the business and I am 52. I have been doing this for the better part of 30 years so it is kind of hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” he said. “That is in itself is challenging and challenging emotionally, too, because you have to make different connections with people.”

Due to COVID-19’s deadly reach, Wiles said arrangements are made by phone, email and he is about unveil a Zoom platform within the funeral homes’ website to provide virtual arrangement conferencing.

“More and more people are becoming accustomed to doing things that way,” Wiles said. “So we are trying to offer as many alternatives as we can.”

But Wiles doesn’t want to see all tradition fade away because he believes ceremonies, where families and friends gather to console each other, are important to mourners’ mental health.

SAFETY FIRST

Michael Martel, marketing director for The Fortin Group, which owns funeral homes in Auburn, Lewiston and Lisbon, said the appearance of the coronavirus made safety an “absolute priority” for Fortin’s staff and clientele.

“Much like the medical community that has needed personal protective equipment, we also have to heavily focus on the safety of all of our associates who are handling the deceased and responding to scenes,” Martel said.

Fortin’s funeral homes have implemented more cleaning procedures, limiting the number of mourners and having masks available to staff, family and friends.

Face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are available near the front door of Wiles Remembrance Center in Farminton. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“When all this started hitting, we had to dive right into those procedures and make that the new normal for our team right away,” Martel said. 

He said social distancing presented another safety concern for families. Fortin now makes “a fair bit” of arrangements with families online, using a variety of technology.

But despite technology, Martel said families will have to make tough decisions as COVID-19 lingers. 

“I think it is very tough; I think it is very sad,” he said. “You know part of grieving a loss is being surrounded by the people you love. It is having that person walking into the room that you never expected to be there. It is for hearing that story about your loved one you never heard before.

“Those are the moments that funeral directors help create, Martel said. “Those are the moments that are so special. It is really tough to create that under the (COVID-19) rules.”


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