RINCON — No facet of life is immune to the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced on Americans.
Even the grieving process has been interrupted.
The caring hugs, warm handshakes and tender pats on the back that are usually prevalent at funerals have been put on hold in an effort to combat the highly contagious respiratory disease.
“The way we conduct business has changed a ton,” said Luke Sheridan, funeral director at Riggs Funeral Home in Guyton. “We are still learning everyday and (the situation) is changing everyday. It’s somewhat terrifying.”
Riggs Funeral Home has worked to keep its customers safe while occasionally receiving conflicting advice from federal health experts about how to do it.
“We’re somewhat lost,” he said.
Tommy Strickland of Thomas C. Strickland and Sons Funeral Home said the situation is unprecedented in his lengthy career. He has been in the funeral business for more than 48 years. He has outlets in Rincon and Pooler.
“It’s tough,” he said. “We have a sign on the door as you enter explaining what we are trying to do. For everyone’s safety, we have to follow the guidelines of the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the cemeteries.”
Strickland understands the restrictions but he doesn’t like them because they are completely against his nature.
“I’m from the old school,” he said. “I was used to giving a hug to everybody who needed a hug. People have provided that for me over the years but it is totally, totally different now.
“We want to be considered friendly, helpful, compassionate, loving and caring, and this (new way) is just so hard.”
Sheridan said Riggs Funeral Home has received advice from Effingham County health and emergency officials.
“They have called and asked questions because they want to protect the county,” he said. “They have put some guidelines down.”
Social distancing is part of the safety plan at both funeral homes.
“We have tried to limit our building to ten people or less just to keep our community and staff safe,” Sheridan said. “We have asked that, for funeral services, everything be outside and nothing in a building. That way people have an opportunity to spread out a little more and you are not touching as much — doorknobs, chairs, pews and things like that.
“Most everything we are doing is graveside or outdoor memorial services.”
Thomas C. Strickland & Sons attempts to restrict seating to every other row of pews in its Effingham Chapel.
“By the same taken, we’d like to have only three or four people on that pew,” Strickland added.
Video streaming of funerals is also an option, he said.
According to Sheridan, small outdoor services, even those conducted near a pond and garden on Riggs Funeral Home property, aren’t optimum for mourners.
“It’s extremely unfortunate because in times of grief people need to be together to help each other out,” he explained. “We have encouraged people to do that in their own time at their residence. As a business, we want to be there for them because that’s what we do but it makes us liable if something happens and we wouldn’t want families to get sick because we encounter people on a daily basis.”
Health officials believe many COVID-19 deaths in Albany are linked to two funerals. As of Sunday, the disease had claimed 40 patients at Albany’s Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.
“If we went to a funeral right now with fifty or seventy-five people, we probably wouldn’t get in the gate,” Strickland said.
Riggs Funeral Home limits visitation, or viewing, to family members.
“The immediate family kind of stays the entire time and then close friends and extended family come at different hours,” Sheridan said.
Some customers have declined to have a register book, he added.
“They are trying to limit the handling of the pen, the handling of the book, in order to limit the contact,” he said. “We have pushed more of an online base where people can sign a register book from home. One option we have used is people relay what they want to say and we write it in (the book).
“We also have multiple pens where we can sanitize them after people put them down.”
Strickland’s funeral homes keep hand sanitizer and paper towels at the front door.
“We also space out a little bit more when we are waiting on a family,” Strickland said.
Sheridan and Riggs Funeral Home owner Heather Riggs regret that social distancing interferes with their customers’ grieving process.
“We had a family in here the other day and the wife said, ‘This isn’t fair,’” Riggs explained.
“I can only imagine what it would be like for a family,” Sheridan interjected.
Some families have opted to postpone funeral services until the pandemic is over. Others have discussed returning to the funeral home for a service to celebrate their loved one’s birthday.
Strickland expressed confidence life and business will return to normal soon.
“We will get through this,” he said. “God is good and what we’ve done so far He’s helped us to get through.”
The way we conduct business has changed a tone.Luke Sheridan, Riggs Funeral Home