SALT LAKE CITY — On Tuesday evening, family members of the late William Ivie arrived in staggered groups to Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Home in Murray. A funeral home worker opened the door for them, immediately offering a squirt of hand sanitizer, before directing them back toward the casket.
Children and grandchildren spoke in quiet but cheerful tones as they greeted each other without hugs or handshakes and avoided accumulating more than 10 people in a room at once. Over peaceful piano music, they exchanged thoughts about the 92-year-old’s death at a time when the world is nearing standstill due to the novel coronavirus or COVID-19.
“It’s been hard,” said Linda Ivie Chatelain, 70, Ivie’s daughter. “You know that there are friends who would love to be here and family that can’t.”
Chatelain said she and her four siblings would have liked to hold a large memorial service to honor their father, a World War II Navy veteran who lived in Murray for more than 65 years and was deeply involved in church and Scouting. Chatelain estimates more than 300 people would have attended. Instead, the Ivies kept it simple with a two-hour viewing and a small burial ceremony just for immediate family.
“I’ve been telling people who’ve called, ‘Find your own way to honor him,’” Chatelain said.
While some families have postponed funeral services until the summer months when they hope the coronavirus fears will have faded, others are doing their best to lay their loved ones to rest amid warnings against unnecessary travel and restrictions on group gatherings. On Thursday, the Salt Lake County and Utah County Health Departments issued orders making illegal to gather in groups of more than 10 for the next 30 days.
Funeral companies like Jenkins-Soffe are trying to follow the latest guidelines from health officials by offering video livestreaming for memorial services, over-the-phone grief counseling, longer viewings so families can come in shifts, new protocols for sanitization and no-hug and no-handshake policies.
“The first thing you want to do with someone who is grieving is to go and hug them and comfort them,” said Simone Black, community liaison director at Jenkins-Soffe. “And now with these new restrictions, it’s going to be extremely isolating. That’s going to be very difficult for people.”
Before last week, Jenkins-Soffe was one of the few funeral homes in Utah that offered livestreaming, with cameras that were first installed nearly 10 years ago at its two locations in Murray and South Jordan.
Historically, the livestreaming option has been used for friends or family members in the military or people who couldn’t make it to a funeral due to other reasons, including distance, health, work or finances, Black said.
Now, the company is making the service available to all customers for free because of the coronavirus. After a funeral is recorded, the video is available and can be viewed online for 30 days.
Other funeral home directors like Jordan Buckner, vice president of operations for Memorial Mortuaries & Cemeteries, have scrambled to set up webcasting capabilities over the past several days. On Thursday, March 12, Buckner rushed to the Apple store and purchased iPhones and iPads to be used both at indoor and gravesite services.
“We were up and running Friday afternoon,” he said.
Streaming options are a godsend for families like that of Mike Ramsey, 35, who lives in Burley, Idaho. Ramsey’s grandmother, Lillie Ramsey, died on March 14 at the age of 93. A singer who loved to quilt and watch Utah Jazz games, Lillie Ramsey is survived by six children, 15 grandchildren and 76 great-grandchildren.
“That’s not including spouses,” Mike Ramsey said. “Just with the families of immediate descendants, there are well over a hundred people.”
Mike Ramsey said his family is extremely close, but many of his aunts and uncles are over the age of 60 and have health problems. Around 50 people attended the memorial service at Rasmussen-Wilson Funeral Home on Friday. Some people hugged while others avoided touching anyone and sat in chairs separated from the group. The rest of the family watched online from their homes, Mike Ramsey said.
“I look at my grandma and I just think, here’s this like quiet, dignified lady; everything else came first, before her,” said Mike Ramsey. “Part of me is sad because this was the one time I would have loved to see a packed room full of all the people she’s affected or been part of. But yet again it’s like, other things have to come first.”
“That’s what she would have wanted though. She would have said, ‘I wouldn’t want people getting sick over me.’”
Funerals are a way to honor a deceased person’s life, but they also play a vital role in helping families find closure, said Joe Rudd, who operates Rudd Funeral Home and Rogers & Taylor Funeral Home in Box Elder County.
“We can delay a funeral, but we can’t push off a family’s grief,” said Rudd, who is also president of the Utah Funeral Directors Association. “That’s gonna be the trickier part.”
Rudd said that clients are coming to him and still wanting to do full funeral services. He recognizes the need for families to mourn in their own way.
“It’s been the toughest thing for me to tell a family that we have to limit their friends coming,” Rudd said.
Sonia Madsen, 48, whose mother Barbara Madsen died unexpectedly on March 13 at age 79, welcomes having some extra time to prepare for a memorial. Madsen’s family has decided to postpone the main event until everyone is able to gather and celebrate the woman who is remembered for her hospitality, creativity, love of plants and frequent trips to Southern California beaches.
“I appreciate the time we have to process her death and get our thoughts together. When someone you love dies, it’s so stressful. There’s so much pressure with having to plan everything and alert everybody and figure out the programs and songs and pictures,” said Sonia Madsen. “This could be a time over the next few months to think about my mom and what we would like to share about her.”
Barbara Madsen’s family held a small burial service where family members waited in their cars and then approached the grave in groups of 10 people, she said.
Other families, however, are requesting that morticians keep their loved one’s body until they can have a viewing, funeral and burial all together. Buckner said he is offering his customers that option with the caveat that even with embalming, a body is typically not going to be very viewable after more than a month.
“If a family really wants to do that, we are willing to give it our best shot,” Buckner said.
According to Buckner, Memorial Mortuaries holds between 20 and 30 funerals a week at eight locations across Davis, Salt Lake and Wasatch counties.
While Memorial is allowing people to postpone scheduled funerals, they are limiting those postponements to one per day in the summer months as to avoid overwhelming the business later on.
At the same time, Buckner said Memorial is preparing for a potential spike in deaths if the coronavirus starts to claim lives in Utah. Currently, Buckner said he feels the business is ready to handle the potential additional deaths that might occur.
“We believe strongly in the value that a funeral and a viewing has in the grieving and mourning process for the family,” said Buckner. “What we don’t want to do is shortchange families by doing quick dispositions with limited viewings and services that really at the end of the day are detrimental to their grieving journeys.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “there is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19.”
“Depending on a family’s preferences, their loved one can be safely embalmed and families may choose either burial or cremation,” said Black.