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Coronavirus and funeral homes: Lots of Lysol and prayers, no handshakes or hugs

Jimmy Settle
Nashville Tennessean
Published 11:00 PM EDT Mar 19, 2020

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic. Reported illnesses range from very mild to severe, including death. Agencies anticipate widespread transmission will occur in the U.S. in coming months and recommend social distancing among other measures to slow the spread. Call your doctor and stay home if you are sick. Get more information at or contact the Tennessee Department of Health coronavirus information line at 877-857-2945 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT daily.

Across Tennessee, funeral homes are trying to follow the coronavirus safety recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control.

But that’s not so easy when a grieving family member needs a handshake or a hug.

“It’s not just funerals and family visitations that we’re concerned about at this time,” said Randy Nash, associate director of the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association. 

“It’s also the person-to-person activities such as making funeral arrangements with surviving family members. In those cases, we’re encouraging funeral homes to handle arrangements by Skype or online wherever possible.”

Gale Robinson, third generation owner of Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home in Nashville, said he and his staff are trying to comply with the CDC recommendations for any events in their facilities, but that if a family chooses to hold a service or visitation at another location, “there is nothing (he) can do.”

“We had a service planned this week, and we talked to the family (about the new guidelines) but they said, ‘No, we have people coming in and want to have it.’ They were having at a church, so it was not my call,” he said.

“We are taking all of the precautions that the CDC recommends. If they are having a visitation here, we tell them the limit is 10 people. It is a hard call, we are dealing with grieving families. This is not like other industries.When a family needs us we need to be there.”

Robinson said another family making arrangements this week decided to have a private family viewing visitation, followed by a cremation now and a memorial service at a later date. “With all of this going on, they were fine with that,” he said.

“And honestly, we had three services last week, and there were only a handful of people. People don’t want to get sick,” he said. 

Robinson said that in addition to limiting crowds, his funeral home is not allowing any food or drink in as part of a visitation. “No coffee, no food,” he said.

Kim Bridges, owner of Bridges Funeral Home in Knoxville and two funeral homes in Colorado, said some of the families her company is assisting are choosing to have small graveside services now and are planning a larger memorial service/celebration of life later.

In the meantime, Bridges is advising families of the 10-person limit on gatherings and asking people to “spread out” if they are in a graveside tent.

She said some of the families are making arrangements for their loved ones via Skype, Zoom or email, and the funeral home is hoping to be able to offer a live streaming option for upcoming services as soon as next week.

Funeral directors such as Ed Larson with McReynolds, Nave & Larson Funeral Home in Clarksville are asking families to dispense with traditional greetings involving physical contact.

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“We’re displaying signs that ask everyone to refrain from hugging and shaking hands at this time,” Larson said. 

Keep your distance at visitation

Those measures are in line with guidance from the National Funeral Directors Association, which suggests funeral home employees scale back physical contact with guests and consider offering to livestream services online for those who can’t attend.

The NFDA also endorses the CDC’s recommendations of limiting attendance at funerals and visitations; providing plenty of soap, hand sanitizer and tissues; promoting social distancing; and encouraging at-risk populations to stay home. 

Another step McReynolds, Nave & Larson is taking is extending family visitation hours for any near-term funerals it holds. The idea here, Larson said, is to offer people a longer window of time to visit the families, hopefully resulting in smaller crowds and shorter waiting lines.

“Above all, I think people can use their own common sense of whether they should come to a family funeral gathering or not,” he said.

Signs are being posted at Neal-Tarpley-Parchman, where funeral director Andy Shemwell is encouraging people to “pay their respects, but keep their distance.”

“What we’re basically saying is that you can express your condolences without making personal contact with someone,” Shemwell said. 

A sign in the front glass window advises guests and visitors of the more limited hours and interaction taking form at Foston Funeral Home in Clarksville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Henry Taylor/The Leaf-Chronicle

“On our front door, we’ll have a sign that basically tells people, ‘If you’re coughing, have a fever or have shortness of breath, please promptly return to your car,'” Shemwell said.

Lakeshia Gamble, assistant funeral director for Foston Funeral Home, said the main priority is the safety of everyone, including their funeral home employees.

“We’re trying to protect ourselves as well as the public,” Gamble said. “If someone dies, we will handle it accordingly, but we’re otherwise urging our staff to stay at home.

“For families of the deceased, we’re explaining to them that we’re following the government’s recommended guidelines. Let’s not shake hands or hug. Instead you can elbow-bump … that kind of thing,” she said. “And if you’re sick, stay at home.”

Lots of Lysol and prayers

Gateway Funeral Home in Clarksville is conducting extra inside cleaning and sanitizing in what funeral director and manager Wade Winkler called this “new world.”

On the inside face of a bathroom door is a sign put up by employees advising any visitors and employees to wash their hands thoroughly at Foston Funeral Home in Clarksville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Henry Taylor/The Leaf-Chronicle

“We have gone ahead with our funeral services, and we have made a lot of effort to clean and disinfect,” Winkler said.

A funeral service that Gateway was scheduled to hold Saturday was postponed indefinitely by the family, however.

“Some places like the Kentucky Veterans Cemetery are going to be restricting attendance for burials to immediate families. More of that kind of thing is coming, but to some extent it’s hard to completely postpone arrangements when someone dies,” Winkler said.

“There’s a reluctance of people to shake hands now. We’re going to have to come to the mindset that not shaking hands is not being unfriendly. It’s just the new norm, at least for a while.”

In the meantime, Hooker Funeral Home is using Lysol and a “whole lot of hand sanitizer … and praying a lot,” said staff member Byrettia Broady.

“We just trust in the Lord. He is our sustainer. But we have to be open to the people,” Broady said. “Other than sanitizing, there’s really not a whole lot we can do. We’re still needing to be around doing our work. In our line of work we give a lot of hugs, and offer a lot of special services to families that are grieving and need us.

“And for the most part that simply has to continue,” she said. 

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Reporter and columnist Mary Hance contributed to this story.

Reach Jimmy Settle at or 931-245-0247.

This content was originally published here.