Lifestyle

Bereaved Families, Funeral Homes Face Unprecedented Restrictions

Coronavirus Changes Policies, Practices for Burials, Final Gatherings

This weekend, during a funeral where no more than 10 socially distant people at a time will be allowed to enter the chapel, family and friends will say their final goodbyes to Marquis Osborne, who lost his life to gun violence this month at the age of 21.

But only a handful of family members — some of whom will most likely wear face masks and other protective gear — will make the drive to Osborne’s resting place.

Such has been life for many of the bereaved who are making funeral arrangements in the middle of a public health state of emergency that has discouraged large gatherings and intimacy, much like what people seek when grieving.

For Osborne’s father Melvin Campbell, making such adjustments, though cumbersome, proved to be the only means of allowing people the ideal time and space to memorialize his son.

“It’s just what I thought on my own,” said Campbell, a Southeast resident and Gulf War veteran who recalled seeing firsthand the effects of diseases unleashed on his comrades and others.

On Tuesday, he and several others briefly threw caution to the wind during a candlelight vigil in the D.C. area that attracted several dozen family and friends. However, the upcoming funeral — which Campbell said some family elders with underlying conditions will miss out of concern for their health — would require a bit more guidance from the professionals.

“The funeral home we chose had a history of dealing with this type of thing,” Campbell told The Informer. “They were forthright about the CDC guidelines. I don’t want to prolong anyone’s grief. I want people to be able to have their memories, their grief still fresh in them, and being able to express themselves.”

As of Sunday night, the D.C. Department of Health has recorded more than 400 positive coronavirus cases. The city’s nine coronavirus-related deaths that have been documented at that time include George Valentine, deputy director of the Office of Legal Counsel.

Since the start of an outbreak that has brought all social and economic activity in the D.C. metropolitan area to a standstill, Mayor Muriel Bowser and her gubernatorial colleagues in neighboring Maryland and Virginia have repeatedly requested that residents remain relegated to their homes in order to curb the virus’s spread.

While the DC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner didn’t reveal how the coronavirus pandemic has changed protocol around the handling of bodies, or the number of bodies taken in since March 11, when Bowser declared a public health state of emergency, officials disclosed that they can accommodate up to 274 cadavers at their facilities.

Any amount beyond that would require the assistance of the Federal Emergency Medical Agency, the National Guard, and other relevant parties, they said.

While some families, like that of the late Marquis Osborne, have acquiesced to the will of local authorities, some funeral directors in the area said bereaved families have postponed ceremonies until May or June, when they expect some return to normalcy. At some funeral homes, this has put a strain on refrigeration space and raised concerns about how the District will support funeral homes as more deaths expected in the coming weeks and months.

Some owners of legacy establishments, such as Horton’s Funeral Home on Kennedy Street in Northwest, said they’ve prioritized safe use of personal protective equipment and reinforced measures often followed by embalmers, and the body removal and cosmetology teams, especially since the policy concerning the testing of human remains for coronavirus seems unclear to them.

In an attempt to follow social distancing protocol, funeral home officials have also allowed a maximum of three family members in their offices to make funeral arrangements. They’ve also facilitated virtual meetings. This has continued to be the case over the last week, when Horton’s, as one of few essential businesses still open in the District, hosted at least a dozen small memorial services, including that of a 9-year-old.

Because of the need for clergy and an organist, such gatherings, to the chagrin of grieving families, could only accommodate a maximum of eight people.

“We don’t know what’s going on with this virus, but we have to take the recommendation of the health profession,” said Randolph Horton, president and CEO of Horton’s Funeral Home, and its accompanying cemetery in Calvert County, Maryland. “It hurts but people are starting to understand. Cemeteries [have]varying restrictions: from limiting access to no family access at all, videotaping the committal as a family keepsake.

“Some cemeteries are only allowing us to take five family members, staff members and a preacher,” Horton said. “One cemetery locked the gate. It was just the body, funeral director and staff and preacher. Some cemeteries are using their staff as pallbearers. One cemetery let the cars get through the gate, but no one could get out their cars.”

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