Joe Ford and the staff at Joe Ford Funeral Home have taken to wearing masks as they roll with changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

The deceased leave behind grieving family and friends, who gather for a last rite of passage: collective mourning and celebration. That was a month ago, before COVID-19 made a jarring – and often deadly – intrusion and before directives from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) became lifelines.

“With this coronavirus pandemic, nothing is the same as it was,” said Joe Ford of Joe Ford Funeral Home. “The state regulatory board strongly recommended that we adhere to guidelines passed down by the CDC.

“So, we can’t have loved ones and friends crowded into a church anymore. Only ten people are allowed in a church or chapel at one time.”

Ford and other Memphis-area funeral and cemetery professionals have been encouraged to tune their business operations to a message from the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. All regulatory boards fall under this office, including the one directing policy for funeral directors, embalmers and burial services.

In part, the statement reads:

“As the rapid spreading of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues throughout our state and nation, we understand that leads to questions on how to continue with your funeral or cemetery businesses… We encourage funeral providers to follow best practices in the conduct of your professional services and follow the guidelines outlined by the CDC, Tennessee Department of Health, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).”

Limousine rides for family and close friends have been eliminated, said Ford. People are driving themselves to the venue. Only 10 family members are allowed in the church for funerals, now. Other family members and friends wait outside, social distancing as they listen to the service inside.

“The way we have been managing this small number is by rotating family members and friends in and out of the service,” said Ford. “We let family members decide who goes in first, and if, in fact, they would like to rotate various people in and out during the service. It’s just the way we have to do things now. This is our new normal.”

Inside the church, people are spaced at least six feet apart.

“Families lose a good deal of the intimacy and closeness of mourning their loved one together, but things are different right now,” Ford said. “We don’t know for how long, but this is just reality right now.”

Visitation – “the wake” – is not part of the new reality. Ford and other staff members wear masks to funeral services.

“We have been wearing white masks, but I ordered black ones from Amazon. This week, we will wear these. Black ones, I feel, look more formal and more professional.

“All of this is going to take some getting used to, but we’ll get through it. We just have to accept how things are and move on.”

Wendell Naylor

The 10-person limit in a funeral service also is the new norm at M.J. Edwards, where Wendell Naylor is a funeral director.

“We are seeing some families livestream the service over YouTube Live, Facebook Live, or some other service on the Internet,” said Naylor.

“They will come in and set up a cell phone on a tripod, and people can go on their Facebook page or follow whatever instructions are given to be a part of the final services. The family posts the livestream prior to the service.”

Naylor said there will be no funerals open to the public for as long as the pandemic lasts. And as is the case at Joe Ford Funeral Home, limousines and visitations on the night before service are, for now, on hold.

Edgar Miller

Edgar Miller with N.J. Ford Funeral Home said that with the 10-person limitation it’s important to allow the family to decide as a unit how to handle the announcement of arrangements.

“Before this pandemic, we would post the time and date of funeral arrangements, but this is a different world we’re living in now,” said Miller. “We leave it up to the family to announce if they will livestream the funeral service, or how they will handle these new changes.

“There is no visitation, and no service will be open to the public. The family decides who will actually attend. But we continue to do what we can to create a memorable homegoing experience. Only 10 people allowed inside. That’s just what it is.”

Ford believes most changes are temporary, though no one knows for how long. He and his fellow funeral directors have one continuing-business path forward: evolve and adapt to the pandemic.

“I guess the closest thing I’ve seen to this COVID-19 is Hurricane Katrina (2005),” said Ford. “My son had just gone back to school and he lost all his belongings, every thing he had. I guess the event, itself, changed some things.

“With the virus, we may see more graveside services. We’re going to look into offering glass-top sealers so the deceased can still be viewed at the graveside. Things have changed, and we’ve got to find ways to give the family the best experience possible, even in these times.”