SCHENECTADY — One of the cruel side effects of the COVID-19 crisis is that people have stopped gathering to say goodbye to loved ones who’ve died of something totally unrelated.
The state has all but banned gatherings of any kind, and it’s affecting funerals as it affects everything else.
Three Schenectady-area funeral directors who spoke to The Daily Gazette said the bereaved are willingly complying, though sometimes with obvious disappointment.
The obituaries of the deceased tell the story:
- “For those who wish to implement social distancing, only staff will be in the building from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Family will be present at the funeral home from 2 to 5 p.m.”
- “Due to coronavirus concerns, the services will be private.”
- “A funeral service will follow at 11 a.m. Watch on Facebook Live @ Townley & Wheeler Funeral Home.”
- “The family has chosen to follow the health guidelines in order to protect the health and well being of their family and friends and will not have any public service at this time.”
Colonie funeral director John Cannon said the crisis is unlike anything he’s seen in his 41 years in the profession.
“I think that like every facet of our lives, this is so distinctly new and different that we are all trying to find solutions,” he said. “The most practical solution is to have services private or much smaller now, and later a larger celebration.”
A dignified ceremony of farewell and remembrance for those we have lost is one of the cornerstone rituals of society; not being able to hold such a gathering can prolong the grief for survivors, Cannon said, noting a California woman who was barred from traveling to her own father’s services at the Cannon Funeral Home.
The restrictions are not to protect the living from any illness the deceased may have had — the embalming process eliminates that risk. The precautions are to protect the living from each other.
“We’re kind of thrown into this storm here,” said Kathleen Lowes Sanvidge, owner of Townley & Wheeler Funeral Home in Ballston Lake. “We’re doing our best to follow the recommendations of the CDC and our state association plus the rules and regulations of the National Funeral Directors Association, and balance that with the integrity this deserves.”
Sanvidge said she and her staff are minimizing personal contact with families and have taken steps such as having relatives leave the personal items of the deceased on the doorstep rather than handing them over in person.
“My staff will be wearing masks to protect themselves and to protect the families … It’s business not as usual. I’m trying to maintain a level of peace and calm and integrity here.”
Sanvidge said he’s offering digital options as well as traditional, limited in-person services.
“I’m a techy person, we can do everything remotely,” she said. “You tell me what you need, I'm going to make it happen.”
David DiToro, owner of Rossi & DiToro Funeral Home in Schenectady, experiences both frustration with having to limit the mourning process and concern that all the precautions may not be enough.
DiToro said he’s taken the chairs out of the funeral home to avoid people sitting together. He has a supply of bleach, gloves and N-95 masks but won’t easily be able to resupply when they’re gone.
“When you’re out there trying to buy this stuff and there’s none to be had, it’s really concerning.”
DiToro also has a direct historic link to a pandemic that has faded away from living memory: The Spanish Influenza of 1918.
He bought the funeral home from Edward Rossi, son of founder Nicola Rossi. Edward, who lived to 102 and was lucid to the end, would sometimes tell of strapping young men being healthy one day and dead the next.
And DiToro still has the funeral home's hand-written ledgers from that period. They show about four funerals a month in 1915, four per month in 1916, four per month in 1917.
In October 1918, the Rossi family hosted 50 funerals.
“And these were all ages. That’s a year’s worth, and that’s the scary part of what’s going on over in Italy,” DiToro said, referring to the Italian death toll, highest in the world.
“As a funeral director, this is my concern. This is why I feel social distancing is so important. I don't want to see anybody die. I don't want to see anybody sick.”