The New Rules for Funerals During the Pandemic

Flower on Gravestone


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Flower on Gravestone

A New End-of-Life Normal

The most recent estimates have put COVID-19's death toll at close to 750,000 worldwide. That figure, in combination with a number of life-changing public health measures — not to mention the inability for many of us to travel right now — means that funerals, like many other facets of life, have changed dramatically. From the minutiae and bigger picture of planning end-of-life celebrations to how all of these paradigm shifts affect how we process grief, here are some ways funerals have changed in a world rocked by a pandemic.

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Outdoor church

The Usual Precautions

The CDC released "Funeral Guidance for Individuals and Families" during the COVID-19 pandemic. This guidance includes exactly what you'd expect, and many families and funeral homes seem to be enforcing these rules, says Cheri Williams-Franklin, founder and CEO of Life Snapshot, a digital estate planning service, who's attended four funeral services since March. She notes that while each of the ceremonies was different, common practices included masks, temperature scans, and social distancing. The largest of the gatherings, she says, required everyone to wear face coverings. "Unfortunately," she adds, "social distancing can be challenging in this type of setting, but everyone did the best they could and maintained a mask at all times."

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Funeral Service

Longer Wait Times (And Then Not)

Especially early on in the pandemic, funerals were delayed for a few reasons: confusion over how to safely organize them; a high COVID-19 mortality rate in some parts of the country; and uncertainty about which friends and family might be able to get into town for the ceremony. Alison Johnston, CEO of Ever Loved, a website that helps families plan and pay for funerals, notes that there initially was a "huge surge in families deciding to postpone a service until the fall," when they hoped that public health restrictions would be eased. "But people are also seeing that we'll have restrictions for much longer than initially expected. This has led more people to go ahead with funerals immediately, adapting them to current recommendations and laws."

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Limited Attendance and RSVPs

Limited Attendance and RSVPs

Part of social distancing includes limiting attendance, and many COVID-era funerals are not as well attended as they might have been a year ago. Williams-Franklin notes that of the four funerals she attended, three limited their attendance to 10, 20, and 30. The fourth funeral allowed 100 participants, but, she adds, "The funeral home was extremely well run, they had hand sanitizer dispensers located throughout the entire facility and some attendees, as well as funeral service staff, wore gloves." Johnston notes that she's "also seeing more families request that attendees RSVP, so they can ensure that there aren't too many people in attendance."

Related: 20 Ways for Older Relatives to Stay Connected With Loved Ones While Social Distancing

Covid Church
Michele Ursi/istockphoto

Seating Plans and Organized Dismissals

Although Johnston notes that adherence to health guidelines at funerals "varies widely by location, funeral home, and family," many services are asking attendees to abide by certain rules. For instance, at one of the funerals Williams-Franklin attended, "Each person was allowed to sit with the person that they came with — otherwise they were asked to spread out ... to sit in every other row so that there wasn’t anyone sitting directly in front of them or behind." When the service ended, she adds, the funeral directors "announced that they would dismiss by section so that everyone did not leave out at the exact same time."

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Webcasting and Live Streaming funeral

Webcasting and Live Streaming

Virtual funerals have become common, so much so that the National Funeral Directors Association has published guidelines for them. "Because of attendance caps, many funerals only have close family members there in person but live stream the service so others can watch at home," says Johnston. She adds that this twist on end-of-life celebrations can even have a silver lining. "Some people even feel like watching on a live stream makes the funeral feel more personal, because you often get a closer view of the person who is speaking, making their emotions even more apparent." Joe Casper, owner of Boston-based Casper Funeral & Cremation Services, says that his company is using Zoom to livestream funerals and, in some cases, trying to provide more than "an outbound feed and include interaction." This, he notes, "requires a moderator to limit who is speaking to the family at one time. But that's easy enough to prevail over with some planning and communications with the family."

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Video Call

More Funeral Digitalization

Casper also notes that ceremony web-casting isn't the only part of end-of-life traditions being affected by the pandemic. "We have completed numerous funerals and cremation services where all family members and our team achieve all meetings via phone/video call, all paperwork done with e-signature and e-payment completed via Docusign, and cremated remains mailed to the family without ever meeting the family in-person," he says.

Funeral Service

Cheaper, Shorter Services …

Many of these precautions have shortened the length of funerals, a trend noted by many of the experts we spoke with. "You have less people attending, fewer songs, fewer individuals sharing kind words with the family, and it’s much harder to wear a face mask for an extended amount of time," notes Williams-Franklin. This has also affected funeral spending. "With fewer people in attendance, people are spending less on average per funeral, opting for more basic items like caskets and adding on fewer services," Johnston notes.

Related: Easing the Financial Cost of a Death in the Family

cremation urn
Chris Hondros/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

… But Also More Thoughtful

But less expensive, briefer services do not necessarily translate to less meaning or poignance, says Casper. "Families are being much more thoughtful about how they celebrate the life of a loved one. Before, in many cases it was a traditional funeral with visiting hours, now it is most often a cremation followed by a celebration at a location of importance to the memory of someone close to our heart."

Family Event
FG Trade/istockphoto

Cremation — Combined with Secondary Ceremonies

Casper notes that another "larger shift" he's seen is "that families are choosing cremation with a celebration of life event at some time in the future vs. burials. More families are scheduling the funeral service with a limited number of participants, utilizing video streaming, and planning a second family celebration event when travel restrictions are lifted."

Life Insurance

More End-of-Life Preparation

Randy VanderVaate, president and owner of Funeral Funds, a life insurance broker that specializes in helping people pay for funerals and final expenses, notes that the pandemic has made "people realize how fragile life is. More and more people are seeing the importance of planning for their funerals. We see an increase in people getting life insurance and preparing for end-of-life services." Casper is seeing the same thing, he says. "More couples are completing all the required paperwork and prepayment to lock in their funeral wishes and costs now, even if they're younger in age or 'healthy,' (and) more individuals are being referred to us by their estate planning attorney after updating their will. I believe COVID has just presented a reality to many people who might not have otherwise considered their own mortality like they are now."

Related: 20 Ways to Prepare for the Loss of a Spouse

Visiting grandparents during covid

Sharing Final Wishes

This trend toward more end-of-life planning has even spurred some new resources. Johnston's Ever Loved company, for example, has built a new tool that lets "people share their final wishes with family members, something that has been shown to reduce family conflict after a death."

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Online Memorial

An Increase in Online Memorials

Johnston also notes that the inability to attend funerals in person has also led to a rise in digital memorials, a resource that her website is offering for free, but that is also offered by many funeral homes. These, she notes, help "friends and family members can connect and share memories virtually."


Effects on Grieving

There are a number of ways in which pandemic-era death and end-of-life planning can impact the grieving process. First, if a loved one has died from COVID-19, VanderVaate notes, in many cases "the family cannot hold their family member for the last time. Grief may not be expressed openly because of the funeral process's restrictions." And Johnston notes that social distancing has made grief "much harder on many people. After a death, our community often acts as a support system, both physically — helping with daily tasks — and emotionally — being there to talk." Without that support system in place, she notes, "grief can feel much deeper, and it can be harder to accomplish basic tasks and self-care."

Senior woman holding photo album

New Ways of Grieving

Psychotherapist Jennifer Tomko of Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, Florida, and a grief expert certified by the World Trade Center Health Program, founded after 9/11, notes that there are a number of ways to grieve and help gain closure if people aren't able to attend a funeral or end-of-life celebration. Some tips she offers include having a simple ceremony at home, writing a goodbye letter, creating a memory book, making a teddy bear from a loved one's clothing, and just generally "allowing yourself to be creative when memorializing the life of a loved one." Finally, she notes, remember that "there is NO timeline. Everyone grieves at different rates and none of these timelines are to be judged. We may find ourselves grieving different losses at different paces."

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