Chairs rest six feet from one another inside the main parlor at Rock Island's Wheelan-Pressly Funeral home, one of four sites in the Wheelan-Pressly chain, all local.
Cameras are strategically placed about the room; a state-of-the art audio and streaming system occupies an adjacent parlor.
Change is the new normal in saying farewell to a loved one. Still, as we fight a pandemic and alter the way we honor the deceased, there remain plenty of constants with funerals in Iowa and Illinois.
"The changes, safety guidelines if you will, are simply to protect everyone,'' said Moline's Kevin Rafferty, president of Rafferty Funeral home. Rafferty is a second-generation funeral director, with 35 years of experience. He is the son of the late Larry Rafferty, a respected local funeral director, who spent nearly 50 years in the business
"We want to make sure saying goodbye to a loved one is safe and dignified,'' Rafferty said. "We are here to serve the family and honor its wishes as best and as safely as we can. If that means we conform to a new normal, we will. We have. The way might change, but the commitment to every family we serve, never does.''
Since the coronavirus took hold nearly four months ago, much about honoring a loved one who has died is different. In compliance with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and to ensure risk of transmitting the virus is minimal, social distancing practices are in place, face coverings are now part of each plan, while live streaming, Facebook live, Zoom, visitor control and drive-by services have become commonplace.
The days of overflowing parlors with guests shoulder-to-shoulder, are — for now — a thing of the past. Today, masks and protective gowns are required of funeral home personnel when removing a decedent from a hospital.
In late June, Illinois — as part of the state's Phase 4 Restore Illinois plan — began allowing up to 50 people in a funeral home at a time. On May 25, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds relaxed restrictions on social gatherings — including visitations — allowing more than 10 people to come together as long as there is six feet between each family group or people attending alone.
Funeral homes also must keep capacity at 50 percent or less and increase hygiene practices to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Illinois-based funeral homes continue to post signs similar to other businesses, asking anyone coming into the facilities to wear masks.
Other changes you have or will see:
- Options outside the "traditional'' service that include a drive-by service, live streaming and Facebook Live.
- Committal services with no more than 50, just 10 at National Cemetery at the Rock Island Arsenal, with no honor guard.
- The funeral director will inform you about federal, state and local mandates and recommendations (including those listed above) — as well as guidelines issued by local cemeteries —- that may affect your funeral arrangements.
"Our jobs as funeral directors are to serve families whom call on us when a loved one has died,'' said Joe Perez, who with Dave Van Huizen, own the four Wheelan-Pressly entities and have dedicated their professional careers to the service of families in need. Since early March, Wheelan-Pressly has had approximately 175 services for the departed. Few, if any, have been the same.
"From responding to the initial death call to overseeing and coordinating all of the details, we help commemorate and honor the legacy each individual leaves behind,'' Perez said. "Families rely heavily on clergy, scripture, prayer, music, stories, eulogies, hugs, handshakes and many other expressions of sympathy.
"They also rely on the support from relatives and friends they have developed relationships with over the years to help get them through a difficult loss. During these last few months of the COVID–19 pandemic, things have changed drastically for the families we serve. Many feel like the lives of their loved ones cannot be properly honored, remembered and celebrated.
"Due to safety concerns, they have not been allowed in hospitals, nursing homes or other care facilities to spend time with their loved ones before they have died. Many families are larger than 10 people and have shared how unfair it is to see gatherings of other sorts occur in many other capacities, yet not for funerals, visitations or celebrations of life.
"There has never been a harder time to be a funeral professional as we assist families through the toughest time in their lives. We will continue offering our professional services in the safest ways possible. We will continue to pray for our families and communities that things will get back to normal soon.''
Despite lack of the "traditional'' service, families appreciate the efforts made on their behalf to make the new normal work.
"The visitation was different in the traditional sense,'' said Cathy McIntosh, daughter of the late Janet Thomas, who died in June. Davenport's Halligan-McCabe-DeVries Funeral Home handled the Thomas service for the family.
"We were given the option for all visitors to wear masks,'' added McIntosh. "We declined, but our family wore masks. Here's one you always expect and take for granted with a service. No mints. There were always mints about the room. Our mother's service — handled amazingly by the staff — was the first one when gathering size in Iowa changed from 10 to 50, just before Illinois opened up and allowed gatherings of 50 or more with proper distancing.
"The parlor for our mom was filled, people standing in line did their best to social distance, but masks were left up to us. I had never seen so much hand sanitizer in my life. It's something we appreciated. The only thing you noticed with all the changes — and this is a testament to the funeral home — was restrictions on the family room. It was just family, no one else coming in and out like it used to be. Every precaution was taken.''
Change to the new normal was never more evident than a drive-by visitation held in April at Rafferty Funeral Home. Ben Rogers, a beloved local Boy Scout leader, who died from complications of the coronavirus, was honored. The family sat/stood in the funeral home entrance and were greeted — in drive-by fashion — by hundreds of sympathetic well-wishers.
"It worked because we had great cooperation from the family and scouting volunteers,'' Rafferty said. "People — families — understand. Everyone has been understanding through this.''
McIntosh said the funeral service for her mother was family-only with a private burial.
"No "sign of peace" in church, no kneeling and those offering the sacrament were wearing face shields and gowns,'' she said. "Strange.''
One change, enhanced cleaning procedures, is not a change with local funeral homes. All are deep-cleaned daily, have long provided hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap and never allowed a box of tissues to pass from one service to another.
"It's things we have always done,'' VanHuizen said as a vacuum cleaner sounded in the distance. "There are more steps we take nowadays, but we have always prided ourselves on making things safe and sanitary for all.''
In a room designated to receive families set to arrange services for a loved one, VanHuizen holds a hand-written list of memorial services for those affected by the coronavirus and various statewide restrictions. A computer-housed list also exists. VanHuizen says every memorial service that did not come to life because of COVID-19 restrictions, will.
"We will honor the wishes of every family that did not get a memorial,'' he said. "Remembering lives has been our calling for over 130 years. The health and safety of the families we serve and our staff are first and foremost in our minds. Lots of families will have a public memorial service when they can and we will honor that.''
"We just don't know where the pandemic will take us,'' Rafferty said. "That said, it can change how we do things, but it cannot change the role we play.''
Columnist John Marx can be reached at 309-757-8388 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: All of the families in this story consented to talking to a reporter and having their loved ones' visitation and funeral services photographed. We appreciate their willingness to share this difficult moment with us, and with our readers.
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