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Funeral directors work through COVID complications

Professionals who work at funeral homes make it their mission to help guide families through painful and high-stress situations. According to two local funeral directors, the coronavirus epidemic has amplified the need for sensitivity, and one said the virus has strained resources.

Professionals who work at funeral homes make it their mission to help guide families through painful and high-stress situations. 

According to two local funeral directors, the coronavirus epidemic has amplified the need for sensitivity, and one said the virus has strained resources.

At Leak and Sons Funeral Homes, vice president Spencer Leak noticed an increase in business late in 2019. He thought perhaps the 86-year-old company was succeeding in its marketing campaigns. 

“We were busier than normal and I didn’t think anything of it,” Leak said. “Now I wonder if some of those people who passed away back then, their deaths could have been related to COVID and we didn’t know it.”

The increased business continues as more people die from complications of the COVID-19 virus. Leak and Sons — which has funeral homes in Country Club Hills and in the Cottage Grove Heights neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago — has added staff, equipment and vehicles to accommodate the number of families who need their services.


Keeping their business personal

Though the virus has led some families to make arrangements online or over the phone, most still request in-person consultations, Leak said.

“You’re not buying groceries or clothing. You’re talking about burying your mother. That’s not something you want to do over the phone,” he said. “They want to touch the casket they’re purchasing. They want to interact with the person writing the obituary.”

The funeral home limits the size of groups coming in to make arrangements to two or three family members, and asks them to wear masks. Leak funeral homes also installed plastic partitions around staff members’ desks.

“I hate that we had to do it, and I find myself apologizing to everyone when they walk in,” Leak said. “We have to protect our staff and we have to protect our clients that come in.”

Funeral visitation hours are reduced, and also limited to no more than 10 people, in accordance with social distancing recommendations.

Tews-Ryan Funeral Home in Homewood is also limiting funeral attendance to immediate family only, and no more than 10 people, according to owner and funeral director Michael Ryan. They also request that family members wear masks, and stay apart from people during consultations.

Ryan said the lack of physical contact in such a personal business has been difficult to manage.

“We’re not hugging or doing handshakes, only elbow bumps,” Ryan said. “My elbows are hurting from all the elbow bumping.”

Families mostly understand and respect the restrictions, though Ryan said some have tried sneaking in more people than allowed during funeral services.

To avoid COVID-related complications, some families opt for direct cremation of their loved one’s remains, delaying get-togethers until a future date.


Shouldering more burden

While the changes have been taxing on Ryan and his staff, he expressed sympathy for the families who lose a loved one during a time when they can’t provide a proper send-off. 

Some families are taking a longer time making decisions on what to do, Ryan said. Tews-Ryan is housing the loved one’s remains while those decisions are made.

“We’ve hesitated two to three weeks (before a funeral),” Ryan said. “The poor families; they just can’t get through it. They can’t even be in the hospital with dad or mom so the poor children don’t know what to do.”

Since churches are closed, all services take place at funeral homes, presenting another responsibility and challenge for funeral homes. Everything happens under their roofs.

“Most churches are not allowing services in their church,” Leak said. “Before, what took pressure off the funeral home was that half of the service was at the church. It’s been challenging having services here several times a day.”

When a deceased person has tested positive for COVID-19, Ryan said the hospital informs the funeral director of that when staff come to transport the person’s remains to the funeral home. 

Ryan said funeral directors are educated and certified in handling remains of people who died under all types of circumstances. They use “universal precautions,” wearing the same type of personal protective equipment and applying the same procedures as health care workers.

“We treat every case as the worst case scenario, so we wear masks and gloves every time we handle someone’s remains,” Ryan said.


Everyone is overloaded

In the South Suburbs, the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected people in the African-American community. Leak said this has overwhelmed funeral homes that primarily serve those families, and have for generations.

“Look at the numbers in Cook County; most of the people (dying) are black, and only a certain amount of funeral homes can service those families,” Leak said.

He said the burden is being placed on black-owned funeral homes that are overwhelmed by the numbers of bodies they’re expected to process — while still offering due respect to the deceased and their families.

“This pandemic is real. If anyone doesn’t believe it’s real, come and spend a day with me and you will go home with a different attitude,” Leak said. 

“Come with me when I’m picking up, not just one person, but they call me and say, ‘You have seven people to pick up today.’ That’s seven at one hospital, six at another, five here, six there — all in the same day. How can we pick up all these bodies in one or two days?”

The influx of people’s remains has been challenging to address, Leak said. He hopes hospitals can play a more active role in storing people’s remains for a longer time, to take some of the burden off funeral homes.

“They’re overloaded, I know. No one was prepared for this,” Leak said. “However, I have adjusted my staff, spent $100,000 on racks, moveable cots, a new van; I’ve had to hire security and more staff to accommodate and adjust to what’s going on right now. Hospitals need to do a better job and step it up. We all have to adjust.”


The Cook County Department of Public Health has dispatched refrigerated trailers to house the remains of those who have died, when facilities can no longer house those remains in their morgue. 

Though incidence of COVID-19 is high in the South Suburbs and death rates are among the highest in the county, only two of the trailers are located at hospitals in the South Suburbs. 

  • Advocate Christ Medical Center, Oak Lawn
  • Ingalls Memorial Hospital, Harvey
  • Loyola University Medical Center, Maywood
  • South Shore Hospital, South Shore, Chicago
  • AMITA Health Saint Joseph Hospital, Lincoln Park, Chicago
  • Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, West Side, Chicago
  • University of Illinois Hospital, Near West Side, Chicago
  • Rush Medical University Medical Center, Near West Side, Chicago
  • AMITA Health Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center, Ukranian Village, Chicago
  • AMITA Health Resurrection Medical Center, Norwood Park
  • AMITA Health Saint Francis Hospital Evanston
  • NorthShore Glenbrook Hospital, Glenview

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