Jim Pate, longtime funeral director at Dennett, Craig and Pate Funeral Home in Saco, handled seven COVID-19 deaths just in the first two weeks of January. He said, “We’ve been trained how to deal with people who lose a child or a spouse or someone from drug addiction. How do you deal with COVID?”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In all of his 34 years as a funeral director, Jim Pate has never seen anything like this.

Shrouded in layers of personal protective equipment, he goes into nursing homes to remove the bodies of people who have died with COVID-19 without their families by their side. Later, at the funeral home, he tries to comfort families grieving the loss of a loved one while struggling to come to terms with a mourning period that will not include being surrounded by their community.

“We’ve been trained how to deal with people who lose a child or a spouse or someone from drug addiction. How do you deal with COVID? A lady puts her husband in a nursing home, he gets COVID and she can’t see him. How do you deal with that pain? You stand there and imagine being married to someone for 50 years and the last week of their life you can’t see them,” said Pate, a second-generation funeral director at Dennett, Craig and Pate funeral homes in Saco and Buxton.

Maine funeral directors are in uncharted territory as they deal with rising numbers of COVID-19 deaths, try to protect themselves and employees from a contagious virus, and help families make funeral arrangements during a highly emotional and uncertain time. As of Wednesday, 630 Mainers had died with COVID-19 since last March. In the first 34 days of 2021, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 283 deaths.

“There has been an emotional toll, not only for our community but for our industry. The reason why we’re in the work we do is because we value life. Although our job is about death, it’s really more about helping the survivors. When we aren’t able to do that effectively, it’s hard,” said Jim Fernald, a funeral director in Bangor and spokesman for the Maine Funeral Directors Association.

Funeral directors have adapted to the precautions and restrictions that come with the pandemic, from extra PPE to enforcing social distancing and hosting virtual services. They have so far been able to keep up with the additional deaths caused by the virus, avoiding grim situations seen in other states where funeral homes are overwhelmed and unable to handle more remains.

But they say it has been been difficult to watch the impact on how people grieve their loved ones. As the number of COVID-19 deaths in Maine continues to grow, funeral directors are increasingly making arrangements for people whose family members also have the virus, causing delays and uncertainty about when families can gather safely to mourn.

The Maine Funeral Directors Association worked with state officials to develop guidance for licensed funeral practitioners, whose work is considered essential. Their work never stopped last March when other businesses closed, but they could not meet with families or hold any kind of visitation or funeral services.

“In the meantime, we still came in and had to take care of the dead to help the living,” Fernald said.

In April, guidance released by the state set limits of five people at arrangement conferences and two family members picking up cremated remains, which are still in effect. Viewings were initially limited to five people and interments or burials were capped at 10. Those restrictions were later updated to align with the state’s limits of 100 people at outdoor gatherings and 50 people indoors.

Funeral directors must enforce mask wearing, quarantine requirements and gather information for contact tracing. For services, they now cluster household groups 6 feet apart and discourage hugging and handshakes. At times, it’s been challenging to deal with people who do not want to wear a mask or provide information for contact tracing, Fernald said.

“Everybody is winging it as best we can with the information we have. We’re in uncharted territory,” said funeral director Doug Bibber. “We haven’t experienced this (as an industry) since the flu pandemic in 1918.”

Jim Pate, longtime funeral director at Dennett, Craig and Pate Funeral Home in Saco, asked his 89-year-old father, who has been a funeral director for more than 60 years, to stay home from work because of the risk of COVID-19. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

INFECTION THREAT LOOMS

Before the recent spike in cases in Maine, Pate had dealt with two COVID-19 deaths. He handled seven during the first two weeks of January.

Pate, who works with his wife, said he often transfers the bodies alone to minimize exposure because both his wife and an employee have asthma. When he gets home, he changes his clothes in the laundry room and showers before seeing his family. He’s asked his 89-year-old father, who has been a funeral director for more than 60 years, to stay home from work.

“Having a small family business, if one person gets infected it could shut down the whole business,” he said.

When funeral directors and staff go into nursing homes and long-term care facilities to transfer a body, they wear PPE that includes smocks and gowns, double gloves, N95 masks and face shields. They work carefully and quickly to wrap bodies to minimize contact and potential exposure. After leaving, they carefully disrobe and put their used PPE in sealed bags.

Bibber, a licensed funeral director and vice president of Bibber Memorial Chapel in Kennebunk, said many of the precautions funeral directors are now using stem from universal precautions that came about during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“What we’re doing now was set in place 30 years ago,” he said.

Last spring, many funeral homes ran into difficulty ordering PPE – especially gowns and smocks – but were able to get the supplies they needed through county emergency management agencies.

Fernald said funeral directors also have had to learn the varying policies and guidelines at the long-term care facilities they work with.

“What we have experienced is that each nursing home or facility has different guidelines for us when someone passes with COVID or without COVID,” he said. “They’re scared of having COVID-19 come into their facility. That is a little bit of a hurdle.”

Fernald, a fifth-generation funeral director who works at Brookings-Smith in Bangor, said it wasn’t until the last few months that his region started experiencing COVID deaths. Last week, he handled three in the span of a few days.

Early on, funeral homes were often handling deaths that had occurred in medical or long-term care facilities, but Fernald is now seeing more people die at home, sometimes with other COVID-positive family members present.

“Now we’re hearing of people caring for loved ones at home and avoiding nursing homes,” he said. “They’re so afraid of their mother or father dying alone.”

Recently, Fernald went to a mobile home after a person had died. Inside, 15 or more family members had gathered and some were not wearing masks. Fernald had to ask the family to leave before he could go in.

“We had to make sure they were safe and we were safe,” he said. “It’s been tough to do what we’re supposed to do.”

NEW WAYS FOR OLD RITUALS

Bibber, a third-generation funeral director who has worked in the industry for 32 years, is still struck by a moment he experienced last year, shortly after he could resume arrangement conferences. One of the first families to come in had just lost a son, whom Bibber had known for decades.

“When I came into their presence for the first time, I couldn’t give them a hug. That sucked,” he said. “The hug is one of the best tools that I have to show empathy for what they are starting to face with the loss of a loved one. That has stuck with me through all of this.”

Bibber and other funeral directors say one of the biggest challenges they’ve faced is helping families navigate quarantine and gathering restrictions while finding a way to memorialize the loved ones they have lost.

“We’re trying to find ways for families to have some sort of ritual at the time of death so they can start their grieving process as healthy as possible,” Bibber said. “Families that have experienced a death have a daunting challenge where their family, friends and neighbors can’t come in to support them like they have in the past.”

Some families have chosen to limit viewings and services to immediate family while inviting others to join through livestreams on social media or funeral home websites. Others have chosen to postpone services until after the pandemic.

“As funeral directors, we encourage them to do something now because it’s important to have support as a family to say goodbye,” Fernald said.

Families face difficult choices as they figure out how to do that, especially if it is not possible to carry out the final wishes of the person who has died because of restrictions, Fernald said. On top of those choices, funeral directors and the families they’re working with also have to grapple with rescheduling services if people in the family become ill or there is bad weather. Those delays are upsetting and leave people edgy and feeling a heightened sense of loss, he said.

“We feel for these people,” Fernald said. “A lot of them are people we know and grew up with in our communities.”

Funeral directors are anticipating a busy spring as they schedule services and burials delayed by the virus. Those services will be scheduled on top of the ones that are typically held in the spring when cemeteries reopen for interments.

Until then, Bibber said he and his colleagues will remain focused on comforting survivors, protecting themselves and awaiting the widespread distribution of the coronavirus vaccine.

“We’re grateful to science that we’ve come up with the vaccine,” Bibber said. “I’m hopeful for the day when we’re able to have this in our rearview mirror. But a lot of people will still be suffering the effects of this time.”


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