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COVID-19 Is Changing How Vermonters Grieve, Care For The Dead

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As COVID-19 spreads, "Health care workers and death care workers are on the front lines of trying to navigate best practices of taking care of the living and the dead," says Chris Palermo, president of the Vermont Funeral Home Directors Association

Maintaining a safe distance can be especially painful when someone you know or love is grieving. You want to reach out with a hug or a handshake; share tears and laughter at a funeral or some other celebration of life.

But now that the governor has issued his order for Vermonters to stay home, people are having to put off funeral services and other celebrations of life.

Michael Henry said it's put his family in a sort of limbo. Henry's son Gregory passed away February 29th from cancer. He said his son grew up in Rutland, but was living in North Carolina at the time of his death. Michael Henry said he's grateful that he and his wife were able to be with Gregory when he died.

But things have been anything but normal since.

"We don't know when we'll be able to go back to the church, and until that occurs you don't have closure. — Michael Henry, Rutland

"We've been kind of on lock down ever since we've gotten back from North Carolina."

He said his son was cremated, but the Catholic funeral mass the family wants to have is on hold; and that's hard. "You don't have closure," he said by phone from his home in Rutland. "Because you're looking at some date down the road that you're going to have a memorial service for him, but we don't know when; whether it's a month, or two months or three. We don't know when we'll be able to go back to the church and so I guess until that occurs, you don't have closure."

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Christopher Book said he’s had to cancel five or six funerals in recent days. “These poor families, I feel for them,” he said. Book has been funeral director at Aldous Funeral Home in Rutland for more than 25 years.  

Like businesses everywhere, he said his has had to adapt. “We’re trying to do everything by phone and email and trying to keep our distance.”

"I feel bad for these people because when somebody dies, you typically hug and support each other and they aren't doing that." — Christopher Book, director, Aldous Funeral Home, Rutland

But he admits that's hard to do in a field that’s all about providing comfort. “To not even shake their hands is pretty tough; you know it’s not natural. And I feel bad for these people because, you know, when somebody dies you typically hug and support each other and they aren’t doing that.”

Running a funeral home is not just about planning visitations, selling caskets or ordering cremations. Funeral home directors routinely travel to people’s homes, and they go inside hospitals and nursing homes to pick up bodies.

Book said most of his colleagues in the funeral business in Vermont are in their sixties or older. That puts them at higher risk for a serious case of COVID19.  

Chris Palermo has owned and operated the Perkins Parker Funeral Home in Waterbury for more than 40 years. He’s also the president of the Vermont Funeral Home Directors Association.

He said in the past, a call from a nursing home would go something like this: “You would arrive at the nursing home; you would go up onto the floor; go through their facility; to the room in which the person has passed,” Palermo explained. “You would transfer them to your equipment and then leave the facility.”

But he added, “In terms of what we're looking at now, that policy absolutely needed to change.”

"Health care workers and death care workers are on the front lines of trying to navigate best practices in terms of taking care of the living and the dead." — Chris Palermo, president of the Vermont Funeral Home Directors Association.

Because of concerns over coronavirus, he said the Vermont Funeral Directors Association has worked with the state health department and others to implement new protocols to ensure bodies are transported in ways that won’t put funeral home directors or others at risk.

"What we're asking the nursing home facilities to do," explained Palermo, "is to bring the body to a location, whether it's a central lobby, an access point near an elevator or an exit door, so that when we come into their facility, we 're not going all the way into their facility."

And Palermo says they’re working with various suppliers to make sure that funeral homes have enough protective gowns, gloves and masks.

“Health care workers and death care workers are on the front lines of trying to navigate best practices in terms of taking care of the living and the dead. And there's a huge cooperative effort between all of these facilities and funeral homes to take care of folks.”

Palermo says losing a loved one is hard enough under normal circumstances. The mission of funeral directors to take care of the dead and help families deal with their loss hasn’t changed he said, “It just may look different for a while.” 

For an update from Commissioner of Health Mark Levine about testing and other matters of safety pertaining to COVID-19 in Vermont, head here.

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