Veilleux & Redington Funeral Homes on Elm Street in Waterville, like many other funeral homes throughout Maine and the nation, are having to find creative ways to meet the needs of families wanting to celebrate lost loved ones while also following social distancing guidelines. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Many businesses must change the way they function during the coronavirus pandemic, and funeral homes are no exception.

When Jeffrey Sproul, owner and funeral director for Giberson Funeral Homes in both Madison and Bingham, gets a call from a hospital, nursing home or another source that someone has died, he must ask whether the person died from COVID-19 or had any contact with someone who had the disease.

He must do so, not only to protect himself but also his staff and others.

“I’m a diabetic and have been, for 30 years,” he said. “I’m also asthmatic. I have a couple of issues I have to deal with. I have had no confirmed cases of coronavirus, but three died from bacterial pneumonia.”

Prior to the pandemic, funeral home staff would don gloves and masks for their work, and now they must wear a gown as well, according to Sproul. And the state has added a section on death certificates that includes information about whether the person died from COVID-19 or is suspected to have died from the disease, according to Sproul, whose businesses are on Maple Street in Madison and River Street in Bingham.

He said he has not had any cases involving COVID-19.

“So far, so good, but we’re trying to use as much caution as possible,” he said.

Like some other funeral home directors in central Maine, Sproul is postponing funeral services until the coronavirus pandemic passes. Sproul normally holds loved ones in tombs throughout the winter for spring burials and says he has enough space for more. Like other directors, he is confident he can accommodate all services to be planned.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ve been inundated with cases before in the spring. You can do multiple services in a day, as long as you plan well and have enough people to help out.”

Ben Cayford, funeral director and manager of Smart & Edwards Funeral Home, on Madison Avenue in Skowhegan, said most people whose loved ones have died want to wait to have a proper celebration of life.

The funeral home is doing everything possible to help families during the coronavirus pandemic, including offering to hold video conferencing instead of in-person meetings to plan for services and gather information for obituaries.

Before the pandemic, as few as five family members or as many as 20 have come to the funeral home to meet with Cayford and his staff to make plans, but now only five people or fewer may meet at one time. Families, he said, usually have more than five members.

“I feel awful for the families because it puts them in an awful position,” Cayford said.

He said funeral homes get regular, special updates from the governor’s office on a daily basis to keep up with guidelines that change daily.

Like Sproul, he said Smart & Edwards is up to the challenge of holding a lot of services at once when it is safe to do so. Since burials can not be done in the winter anyway, the Skowhegan funeral home is used to doing many in the spring.

“We’ll figure it out,” Cayford said. “We always do. Every year, we have a number of spring burials to do with people passing away during the winter. It’s going to be pretty hectic for a while, but we’re going to try to accommodate people as best we can.”

Cayford, who has been at Smart & Edwards nearly 30 years, said no one has been laid off as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Sproul said most of his staff members work per diem, and if there is no work, he does not call them.

Mike Martel, funeral director and market manager for Dignity Memorial, which owns 10 funeral homes including Smart & Edwards and Veilleux & Redington Funeral Homes on Elm Street in Waterville, also has not had to lay off workers.

“We don’t want to go that route,” Martel said.

Like Sproul and Cayford, Martel said Dignity is doing everything possible to help families with their needs and wants while practicing social distancing.

It can be difficult because staff is used to hugging family members and being caregivers, but they must be cautious now, according to Martel.

“It’s not often that funeral directors have to say, ‘No,’ to families, and I suspect it’s really tough for funeral homes across the state,” he said. ”

He said funeral directors are using technology, including Facebook live, for some services. If family members want to see their loved ones for the last time, they are making that happen via technology as well.

Martel talks with other funeral directors about working in the new environment and how best to care for families.

“It’s an ever-evolving process and I know they’re working hard to do the right thing,” he said.

 

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