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Funeral homes continue to adapt to outbreak rules

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Bannan Funeral home owner Chad Esch on Friday shows some of the ways he accessorized a tent on his property that will be used as an area for people to gather and grieve the loss of a loved one. The casket and body will remain indoors, but services can be held in the tent to accommodate more people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ALPENA — Being able to say goodbye to a deceased loved one is a critical part of the grieving process and provides closure to survivors, funeral home directors say.

In the ever-changing landscape of regulations pertaining to public gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Alpena funeral homes are finding alternate ways to involve as many people as possible in the celebration of the memory for those who passed on.

In March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that all but shut down public showings and funerals. Eventually, the rules were relaxed in northern Michigan and a cap of 10 people were allowed for indoor gatherings. In June, the limit was bumped up to 50 people, but, in late July, as the virus surged again, Whitmer reset the limit back to 10 people.

Because of the gathering limit, funeral home directors are using creative ways to allow more people to view their loved ones, communicate with friends and family, and participate in memorial services.

Chad Esch, owner of Bannan Funeral Home in Alpena, said that, during Whitmer’s order in the spring that Michiganders stay home unless absolutely necessary, he wasn’t doing visitations or funerals. When the regulations were relaxed, he held services and shuttled people in and out of visitations so no more than 10 people were in at a time. He had less of an issue when the occupancy was raised to 50 people.

Now that it has been reduced to 10 people once more, Esch said he decided to try something new.

Esch has erected a tent in his parking lot that is decorated during visitation service. He said the casket remains in the building, but the tent allows loved ones to gather, mourn, and celebrate together.

The tent features flowers, picture collages, seating, and a sound system, Esch said.

Signage promotes social distancing, hand sanitizer is available, and there’s even a reminder about the risks involved in making physical contact with one another, including hugging.

“It will allow people to memorialize people and visit more with friends and family, in a safe environment, and grieve together, in a respectful and dignified way,” Esch said. “A community needs to grieve. Doing it by yourself is impossible.”

Esch said people who have lost loved ones since March have suffered horribly. He said many were unable to say proper goodbyes because of visitor restrictions at long-term care facilities and hospitals.

In many cases, survivors have had to wait months to have any type of memorial, and, when they do, many of the emotions they had at the time of the death come rushing back.

“They had time to mourn and grieve, but really didn’t have closure,” he said. “Then, when they are able to have a funeral or service, everything rushes back to them and they relive the entire thing again. It is pretty traumatic.”

Other funeral homes in the city use social media and video platforms to telecast visitations and services.

During memorial services or visitations at McWilliams Funeral Home, ushers escort people in and out of the room where the casket is placed, but mourners can also access services via Facebook Live or the videoconferencing software Zoom, Funeral Director Jeff Faircloth said.

Faircloth said that works well for people who live out of town who may not feel comfortable traveling, or those who are leery of being in places that can become crowded.

Even with the alternative services, Faircloth said the number-one goal is to be there to assist those suffering from a loss.

“We do the best we can to accommodate the family,” he said. “That is one of the main reasons we do what we do. We help navigate survivors through the grieving process. We are just doing it in a little different way now.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.

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