On March 21, 2020 Governor Phil Murphy shut down all non-essential businesses and effectively closed the state for business. Everything changed.
Funeral gatherings were severely limited. In-person arrangements became optional, rather than mandatory. There were backlogs at crematories and cemeteries. Even the role of interns was changed. The funeral business, as we had known it, became something different nearly overnight.
“We are no longer able to conduct business as usual because of what we all are working through daily in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic,” New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association CEO and Executive Director George R. Kelder Jr., CFSP, wrote in March 2020.
Six months later, those words still hold true.
“We are no longer able to conduct business as usual because of what we all are working through daily in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The following is a look at some of the ways that the lives of funeral directors and the business in which they are engaged have changed or evolved.
The availability of personal protective equipment is no longer a given. While currently supplies of PPE can be obtained through New Jersey’s regional funeral associations, early in the pandemic, PPE and body bags were in short supply. Funeral directors were forced to get creative and go outside their standard list of suppliers to obtain equipment needed to prepare decedents for disposition. Despite the fact that PPE can be more easily obtained now, the NJSFDA is urging its members to stock up in preparation for a second wave of COVID-19 deaths.
Funeral arrangements can be made remotely. Funeral directors were used to sitting down with families to go over arrangements, hear their concerns and get them to sign paperwork to move forward with disposition. The state has temporarily waived the rule mandating in-person arrangements and authorizations and allowed for e-signatures on the documents needed to proceed with funeral services.
Interns can witness dispositions without being accompanied by a licensee. The numbers of deaths in New Jersey increased exponentially in April–and were also higher than usual in March and May–leaving funeral directors struggling to keep up with the number of cases they were handling. The state has temporarily waived the requirement that interns must be accompanied by licensed directors when witnessing dispositions. The rule waiver was granted to ensure more timely dispositions during the pandemic.
To deal with these challenges, funeral directors have gotten creative.
The percentage of cremations as disposition in New Jersey has increased. The state saw a spike in the percentage of families choosing cremation as a means of disposition. As of June, the cremation rate has risen by four percentage points since January 2020. Cremations account for well more than 50 percent of dispositions in New Jersey. The increases in the number of deaths and in the number of cremations also led to severe backlogs of several weeks at crematories, causing the state to lift limits on their hours of operation and some air emissions.
Funeral directors can earn continuing education credits remotely. The state temporarily waived its requirement that mandatory continuing education credits be obtained only through in-person seminars. In order to assist funeral directors in earning the needed credits to secure license renewal, the New Jersey Funeral Service Education Corporation has held the Webinar CE Series, with new webinars coming soon.
Social distancing at funeral services is mandatory. Even though some restrictions on funeral gatherings have been eased, mourners must still practice social distancing at services. This means that attendees must remain six feet apart at all times and also must wear masks. Families living in the same house may be seated together, but all others must be distanced.
The 2020 NJSFDA Funeral Directors Convention and Expo was canceled. The annual Funeral Directors Convention and Expo, originally scheduled in September at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, was canceled. The convention is one of the largest regional events of its kind, providing funeral directors and vendors an opportunity to meet, greet and develop relationships. The pandemic, however, made the in-person gathering impossible to hold.
To deal with these challenges, funeral directors have gotten creative. The webcasting of funeral services, for instance, has become more prevalent. But more changes may be coming, and different challenges may arise. Many of the changes above are considered temporary.
When and if waivers of in-person arrangements and remote continuing education are rescinded is anyone’s guess. Whether restrictions on gatherings will continue to be eased or tightened again if the number of COVID-19 infections rise is yet to be known. Funeral directors, however, are better prepared for whatever happens, said NJSFDA President Gregory M. Aseltta.
“When the pandemic accelerated in March, nobody was prepared for what was about to come,” Aseltta said in a recent interview. “Over time, our knowledge continued to improve to the point that I believe we now have the experience, resources, and equipment to handle another round of COVID-19.”