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Death in the time of coronavirus

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Among the myriad ways our lives have been changed, disrupted and put on hold by this unprecedented health crisis, one of the most difficult aspects has been how to deal with death. Losing a loved one is often one of the most traumatic experiences during “normal” times, but the regulations that have been put in place since the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic has meant that we cannot physically be with those succumbing to the virus, and that we cannot collectively grieve for them in the manners to which we are accustomed.

Fortunately for our community and those nearby (at least so far) the coronavirus has had minimal effect — a couple of COVID19-related deaths in Garfield County and less than two dozen patients hospitalized with the virus at Valley View Hospital — and the impact has also been modest for the funeral industry.

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Carbondale Town Manager Jay Harrington noted that it has been “a rather uneventful month” for deaths in the town. There has been only one funeral with a burial at Evergreen Cemetery since the outbreak, and that occurred just before the stricter stay-in-place orders were implemented in late March. In that instance, the family observed the ten-person limit at the graveside itself, with other mourners remaining in their cars.

What has changed is how the Town and family of the deceased have had to make burial arrangements. Town Clerk Cathy Derby is responsible for negotiating the contract for the gravesite with the grieving family. The Parks & Rec. Department takes care of digging the grave and filling it in once funeral-home personnel have placed the coffin in the grave.

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Up until now, if a family needed to purchase a plot, Derby would get together with them at Evergreen, they would view potential sites and would choose one. But with the current situation, she could not meet directly with the family that requested a burial. Instead, she conducted all of the negotiations over the phone. “It was surreal to meet with them remotely. Usually we can express compassion in person.”

The alternate the Town came up with was to designate a couple of possibilities and present those to the family. “We gave them the choice of A or B. They understood and made their choice.” She said that they also understood the restriction of ten people at the burial. “I suggested that at a later time, maybe by July, they could have a larger family gathering at the gravesite,” which they thought was a reasonable option.

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Changes have also hit the Farnum-Holt Funeral Home in Glenwood. Funeral director Shannon Derby (no relation), said that the COVID19 pandemic has given them “a whole different outlook” on how to conduct their operations. For starters, they temporarily closed their sister operation in Rifle and furloughed the staff there. “This was a hard closure for us,” she noted. She has been working from home and interacting with families via FaceTime to make arrangements.

An even bigger difference, of course, has been that they cannot host any funerals or visitations at the facility while the shutdown is in force. Derby knows how hard this has been on the families, and she said it has been difficult for them too. “We don’t like it, we’re one-on-one people … we’re huggers!”

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So far, the funeral home has not seen a rise in cremations, as opposed to burials. Cremations have long been much more common than burials in the Valley, anyway. Derby said that the rate of cremations during the pandemic “doesn’t seem that different” from what it was before. She noted, “No one has changed their mind [about cremation over burial] because of the current protocols.”

Derby was emphatically negative when asked if she anticipated any change in the funeral home’s procedures (to more remote interactions) once the restrictions had been lifted. “We want to go back to our one-on-one [interactions with the families]. As soon as we can, we’ll be doing that.”

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Cathy Derby echoed that sentiment. “[Once] it’s safe for everybody, it is good to meet with people in person. They are comforted by this.” She noted, though, that the Town will continue designating specific cemetery plots for people to choose from, rather than the more random method used in the past.

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