Just as grieving families and friends need to embrace or extend a hand during the loss of a loved one, the COVID-19 pandemic is making that more difficult.

Due to the safety hazards brought on by COVID-19, people are required to practice social distancing, which includes staying at least 6 feet away from others and meeting in groups of no more than 10 people.

That’s left Franklin County’s funeral homes with the challenges of caring for families while also practicing social distancing.

Victor Conner, who co-owns Conner-Bowman Funeral Home and Crematory and Lynch Conner-Bowman Funeral Home with Kevin Bowman, said the unique circumstances have presented a learning curve.

“We’re going to do the best we can for our families and still remain compliant,” Conner said. “While we are still open and serving families, we are limited in what we can and can’t do.”

Lee Flora, owner of Flora Funeral Service, said while the way services are offered has changed, the concern for those left behind has not.

“It’s a new experience that no one has gone through. There’s no template or precedent for this,” Flora said.

In light of COVID-19, Flora said his center is encouraging families to have private viewings and graveside services, with later remembrance gatherings as an option. Conner said most everything his funeral home is doing is private as well.

“Our families understand our position and so far everybody’s been understanding,” Conner said.

The family of Marsha George Dent, who died March 17, was the first family Conner-Bowman served after restrictions were put into place. Dent’s niece, Kristy Pickeral, handled the arrangements for the family.

“Victor and the folks out there were very accommodating and apologetic about not being able to do things traditionally and as a complete family,” she said.

Pickeral, her mother, Gayle Turner and aunt, Joann English, worked to determine which family members would be seated in the funeral home’s chapel for the service. In other rooms throughout the funeral home, additional small groups could gather to watch the service through live streaming. After the service, funeral attendants helped guests exit the facility using appropriate distancing guidelines. The service also was available through live streaming on Facebook.

“We felt satisfied and like Marsha would’ve been satisfied,” Pickeral said as she reflected on the arrangements. She said the entire family will gather at a later date to celebrate Dent’s life when restrictions are lifted.

When asked what recommendations she had for planning for a loved one’s memorial, Pickeral said, “Be flexible and think out of the box. Think of things you could do later to celebrate the life of your loved one.”

She said the extra time will enable her family to be creative in doing things Dent would’ve liked, as well as allow them more time to share memories.

Flora had favorable sentiments from the families he has served. “All the families we’re serving have been very cooperative and understanding,” he said.

Mark Stanfield, assistant manager of Stanfield Mortuary Service, said he’s finding that families are more disappointed than upset.

“It’s a fine line between protecting public health and granting families’ final funeral wishes,” Stanfield said.

The awkwardness of social distancing during a time of grief is challenging, Flora said.

“It’s a natural response to embrace and extend a hand,” he said. “We’re trying to abide by governmental guidelines.”

Bowman said his biggest challenge is telling families they can’t have what they normally would have during such a grief-filled time. “It’s harder with traditional funerals,” he said, because people are used to physical contact.

COVID-19 has also affected members of the clergy.

“It’s left a lot of people in limbo,” said Pastor Matthew Ricks of Rocky Mount Christian Church. “The funeral is such an important part of the grieving process, as well as a celebration of a person’s life. As pastors, it’s frustrating, because funerals are such an important part of our jobs. We want to be there to provide comfort.”

Bobby Young, pastor of discipleship for Franklin Heights Church, said, “It’s certainly making it difficult for families to grieve and to minister to them because of social distancing.” He said the church is doing everything it can to care for and minister to families, but in a different way.

Technology has played a key role during the pandemic.

Stanfield said his business has been able to offer online services using Zoom and Facebook. In addition to using the phone to make arrangements, arrangements are also being made with families using Face Time and Duo.

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