Ronald Smith, owner of Sterling & Smith Funeral Directors, which has locations in Fresno, Dinuba, and Tulare, said that due to the current health crisis, funeral services have been limited due to bans on large gatherings. Photo by Frank Lopez

published on April 20, 2020 - 10:57 AM
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Though the effects of the coronavirus are more apparent in our everyday lives with the temporary closure on non-essential businesses, empty shelves at grocery stores and many people out of work, it’s also having an effect on industries that deal with more unexpected matters.

In mid-March, Gov. Newsom issued sweeping guidance for the state to ban gatherings of 250 more, which postponed or cancelled many music festivals, concerts, corporate events, weddings and other types of gatherings. The number continually went down and current federal guidelines suggest gatherings should be limited to 10 people.

With the restrictions on large gatherings, an already difficult situation is presented with even more difficulty: funerals.

The U.S. funeral industry is estimated to be a more than $20-billion-dollar a year industry, according to a Forbes article published in April 2019.

Current guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states, “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.”

The CDC does note however, that people should not touch the body of someone who has died of the COVID-19 disease.

As the numbers of those testing positive for COVID-19 keep going up in the U.S., the crisis is spelling a downturn for the funeral industry.

Joseph Johnson, founder and owner of Wildrose Chapel & Funeral Home on Divisadero Street in Downtown Fresno, said that the ongoing health crisis is limiting the services they can offer, and leading to different funeral service choices by the surviving relatives or loved ones.

Along with not allowing anyone into the building for business activity, the company is not having funeral visitations in the funeral home. Though different cemeteries and funeral homes have different policies and rules, Wildrose Chapel is only allowing 10 people at the burial service, including the priest and a funeral attendant.

Johnson said that he understands that a family would want to hold a funeral visitation for a loved one that has passed, but he is not willing to take the risk amidst the ongoing health crisis.

Johnson said there was a recent incident where clients were allowing multiple groups of 10 at time, which was against a certain cemetery’s rules.

“It’s not worth the risk. If they have to have a visitation, we’re not offended; they just have to use a different funeral home,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how long this will last, but hopefully families will start learning that you have to comply with the rules and regulations.”

Richard Mendivil, funeral director and manager at Peers-Lorentzen Funeral Service in Tulare, said that after the statewide “shelter-in-place” orders, they started getting fewer requests for full, traditional service funerals.

Many clients are having small gravesite services or opting for cremation so they could hold a full-service visitation with more guests at a later date.

The economic shutdown caused by the pandemic, leaving many people out of work, may leave those organizing a funeral to choose cheaper options.

The average cost of a funeral with cremation is about $6,000, and the median cost of a funeral and a burial is about $8,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

The 2018 NFDA Cremation & Burial Report, the cremation rate is projected to reach 70% by 2030, with prices continuing to increase as more consumers select the option.

Mendivil said that Tulare County is stricter with its funeral procedures during the health crisis, and that people will sit in their cars as the minister performs a blessing, and then the family leaves.

The funeral home was planning to ship remains to Mexico, but because of the COVID-19 outbreak closing the doors of the Mexican Consulates, which process the needed documents, the surviving family opted for cremation and will send the remains at a later date.

“[Surviving relatives] are cutting way back. We’re not doing big chapel or church services, they are going very minimal,” Mendivil said. “They’re not buying the book for people to sign, they’re not buying the handouts. All they’re doing is a gravesite, or even if they do cremation when they wanted to do burial, that cuts back on our income tremendously.”

Ronald Smith, owner of Sterling & Smith Funeral Directors, Inc., which has locations in Fresno, Tulare, and Dinuba, said that he has had customers postpone services in the hope the current pandemic will end soon.

Other families are opting for gravesite burial services, particularly Catholic families that might expect a priest to only do graveside services with a minimal number of immediate family members present.  

“We still have people who want to see their loved ones,” Smith said. “We have viewings where we maximize the number of people coming in to 10 at a time, encouraging people to pay their last respects and head out. We still have some that want the large gatherings and are willing to wait to have it.”

Smith said he had one family wait six months for a body to be buried so it could be delivered to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Even though more people trend toward cremation in California, Smith said, many families still want to pay their final respects with a viewing.

With fewer people opting out of traditional, full-service funerals, periphery businesses such as a floral shops are feeling the pain as well.

“Anytime someone says they don’t want a viewing or they don’t want to use our chapel, we do lose revenue,” Smith said. “We do have a decline in revenue, but we are just hoping that it doesn’t get too bad, and that it doesn’t extend too long.”

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