Memphis funeral directors coping with changes

Published 12:44 pm Monday, April 27, 2020

The Commercial Appeal
MEMPHIS (AP) — A funeral is not a popularity contest. Its success — if that word can be used — should not be measured by the number of people in attendance.
Still, it is safe to assume that the 1,500-seat sanctuary at Second Presbyterian Church would have been crowded with mourners if the funeral service for Florence Leffler had been held there, as the longtime Memphis educator, arts supporter, actress and City Council member had intended.
Instead, Leffler, 94, was buried in a small, private graveside service at Elmwood Cemetery.
Eight people were present, and even these few friends and family members kept their distance from each other, in accordance with the guidelines recommended by health officials and by the governor, whose March 26 “Message to Funeral and Cemetery Professionals” was a stark reminder that the coronavirus may be discouraged by an N95 mask, but it is no respecter of dark suits, black dresses and mourning veils.
“Gatherings Shall Not Be Ten (10) Or More People,” stated the order to funeral and cemetery professionals. In other words, a solemn occasion can be as potentially “viral” as a spring break bacchanal.
“It was a different sort of service,” said Leffler’s son, Memphis lawyer Steve Leffler, 65, who delivered a brief eulogy at his mother’s grave. “Everything was already there and ready to go in the ground when we came. There were no pallbearers. Typically after something like that we’d have a get-together at my sister’s house, but there was none of that. We left, and that was it.”
“Everyone understands about this very strange time we’re all having to live through,” said Kim Bearden, executive director of Elmwood, a historic space that is no stranger to plague: Some 2,500 victims of the city’s yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s are buried in the cemetery’s “No Man’s Land.”
“But we’re cemetery and funeral professionals,” Bearden continued. “We are taught to serve our families in times of need, and not to tell them, ‘No, I’m sorry, we can’t provide these comforts to you in the time of your greatest need.’ It is very difficult and quite unusual for us.”
For example, Bearden said, “Simply because people touch them, we’re not putting out chairs for services, which breaks my heart and feels totally unnatural.”
To state the obvious, funeral directors and cemetery managers — unlike, say, nightclub owners and movie theater operators — are no less in demand in this era of COVID-19. “As far as death, there’s no time or season,” said Joe Lowery, general manager at Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery, which oversees close to 1,200 services a year.
Even so, few “essential services” require quite the mixture of expertise, finesse and sympathy as funeral planning. The job is an exercise in diplomacy, even if its practitioners now wear masks and gloves.
“The biggest impact for us is watching the families have to adapt so drastically from a traditional funeral,” Lowery said. “You just don’t get to celebrate life the way we used to do it.”
Telling families about the attendance limit is tough. “That’s the worst part,” Lowery said, “watching families try to figure out who’s going to get to come.”
Pam Wherry agrees.
“It’s hard for a family to pick and choose 10 people, but they have to,” said Wherry, managing funeral director at N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home on South Parkway. “For us to tell a family that, of course, it’s devastating. They’re already going through a rough time.”
The changes in behavior that accompany social distancing are especially noticeable at a funeral service. Now, “there’s no hugging, no shaking hands,” Wherry said. But the mandates “are not a secret. They know how they are expected to distance.”
As a result, many families these days are holding brief graveside services rather than small church or chapel services, the funeral directors said. If a visitation is scheduled at Memorial Park, Lowery said, those paying their respects to the departed are required to “rotate” through the chapel so no more than 10 are present at a time, just as some stores now rotate customers.
Another change is an increased emphasis on the “streaming” of services via Facebook Live and other platforms.
“We’ve had the technology for a long time, but people didn’t use it as much,” Lowery said. But with social distancing limiting funeral size and discouraging the presence of out-of-town relatives, “streamed” funeral services offer a new way for families to come together in large albeit “virtual” groups.
Perhaps the biggest change from tradition is that the funeral service that occurs when the pain of a loved one’s death is still fresh is now regarded, in many cases, as a sort of stopgap measure — a necessity or formality that will be amended in the future by a more joyous remembrance.
“A lot of families have chosen to go to a graveside service, but plan a celebration of life, something bigger, at a later date,” Lowery said.
“That’s what I’m encouraging,” Wherry said. “You’re going to have your service, graveside or what-have-you, but after that you can always do something at a later date, once this (social distancing) is over. You can have it through the funeral home, or you can just have friends come over and gather with everybody.”
Leffler said that is exactly what his family plans to do.
He said his mother, who died April 6 of natural causes, had planned her funeral in advance. A former actress with a long history in theater, she wanted a memorable service.
“She had complete plans,” Leffler said. “She had the music picked out, the singers, who she wanted to speak. So we’re going to have all that at some point down the road.”
He said the small April 10 graveside service was “not the way it was supposed to be. We knew this wasn’t right. We knew this was an outlier. But it’s one of those things. … We looked at it as something we had to do now before we do it the right way in the future, the way she would have wanted.”
He said he sympathizes with the many other families who have had to make similar compromises when planning funerals for their loved ones.
“You can distance from each other, but you can’t distance from the grief,” Lowery said. “The grief process still has to happen somehow.”

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