The little chapel inside Fitzhenry – Wiefels Mortuary should be filled with mourners but because of the coronavirus pandemic, gatherings aren’t allowed, not even for final goodbyes.
“It’s been really hard,” says Maggie McMillan, who is the fourth generation working in this family owned business, adding that while their mission is the same, arranging funerals has dramatically changed, “words just aren’t enough in those situations and so not being able to hug them, not being able to say, ‘I don’t have the answer but I‘ll sit here with you and can cry together,’ like that’s something we can’t do any more.”
Most arrangements are made by phone or on the web, the few meetings they do have are at a distance, the only place several people can gather is at the grave site but even there the service is different. The few people who can attend must wear masks and social distance, but it can be live streamed so other family members can watch remotely.
“We’ll try to be creative, we’ll try and find ways for you and your family to be able to grieve this personal loss knowing that you’re also grieving this sort of collective loss of what’s normal to us,” says McMillan.
But there’s also risk involved. They don’t get to stay home, they’re essential workers. And they have to pick up the remains of people who died of COVID-19, often go inside their homes and interact with their loved ones who have also been exposed. They have to take extra measures to protect themselves like wear gloves masks and full protective suits.
“It can happen sometimes that air is exhaled from the lungs of someone that’s passed away as we’re moving the body … with this particular virus the risk of exposure is higher with people who are living,” says McMillan adding they advise their employees to assume everyone in their care is positive for the virus as many who die don’t have access to testing.
She says so far they’ve had 30 funerals for people who’ve died of the virus.
But the staff here worries more about being of service to those who have suffered a loss during this crisis.
“You can’t help but try to be there for your families and encourage them, yeah it’s a challenge but I can’t imagine doing anything else but this,” says Adrianna Mims, a funeral arrangement counselor who says this is a calling she’s proud to do.