Utah funeral homes find ways to help people grieve despite limitations from coronavirus

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Murray City Cemetery on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Utah funeral directors say it's important that people still be able to grieve the death of a loved one, even as crowd sizes are limited to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.

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Funerals may look a little different for a while — with smaller gatherings, more hand sanitizer and services streamed online — as government and health officials try to stem the spread of the coronavirus. But it’s important for people to still be able to memorialize those who have died, Utah funeral directors agree.

“You can’t just push off the grief,” said Joe Rudd, president of the Utah Funeral Directors Association and owner of Rudd Funeral Home in Garland.

Rudd said he’s had funeral homes across the state reach out with questions and uncertainty about how to continue providing funerals that comply with COVID-19 guidelines. Gov. Gary Herbert recently prohibited gatherings in Utah of 10 or more people. And health officials are encouraging people to stay home and keep 6 feet apart from others while out in public.

Each funeral home has to find a balance of keeping people safe and healthy while also providing services, Rudd said. The hard part is trying to explain those limitations to families, he said.

Recent local obituaries show some people have opted to postpone funerals. One for a West Valley City man states, “Funeral services originally scheduled have been cancelled due to the Coronavirus." Others have decided to hold services but limit crowd size, such as the funeral for Mary Magdalena Romero, who died March 12.

She had seven children, 20 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great-grandchildren. As her family started planning, they learned that only immediate family would be allowed to attend her funeral mass at Saint Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele on Tuesday. Angela Romero, Mary Magdalena Romero’s granddaughter, estimates they had about 30 people there.

It was “heartbreaking" for Angela Romero to have to tell her 86-year-old grandmother’s friends that they couldn’t attend, she said. Most of them are in their late 80s themselves, and health officials have said that the elderly are among those at the highest risk to contract COVID-19.

When Mary Magdalena Romero’s 87-year-old best friend showed up anyway, “we didn’t have the heart to tell her to go,” Angela Romero said.

Mary Magdalena Romero was “small in stature” but “lived larger than life,” according to her obituary. “My grandmother was really popular,” Angela Romero said. She worked at Walmart for 20 years and played bingo every Friday night. Once things calm down and get back closer to normal, “I definitely want to hold a celebration of life for her and some of her friends,” possibly in July, she said.

(Photo courtesy of Angela Romero) Angela Romero, right, with her late grandmother, Mary Magdalena Romero, who died March 12, and son, Pedensio Cordero. The family had to limit the number of guests at Mary Magdalena Romero's funeral because of coronavirus.

Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Funeral Homes and Cremation Center, which has locations in Murray and South Jordan, is offering free livestreaming of services. They’ve provided the option for years, but it’s especially helpful now, co-owner Blake Soffe said.

“I just think it’s important. People want to pay their condolences … and they want to be able to grieve,” Soffe said. Livestreaming is a “good way for them to be involved with this rather than actually being there.”

They’re still figuring out all the logistics, but currently, Jenkins-Soffe is limiting the number of people who can attend funerals, Rudd said. They’ve also made hand sanitizer available and posted signs to encourage people to not hug or shake hands. At a funeral last weekend, Rudd said, he had people keep a 6-foot distance between them.

The Utah Funeral Directors Association posted a letter on its website March 12 recommending some of these practices and other safety tips. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Funeral Directors Association also have issued instructions for how homes should care for those who have died of COVID-19. Rudd said he’s hoping for more guidance from the state of Utah soon.

Funeral homes need to be sensitive to people planning funerals in coming weeks as they navigate these disruptions and limitations, Rudd said. Services can still happen, though, “we’re just not be able to have a big memorialized funeral.”

“It’s very difficult. You put yourself in that situation. What would you do if it was your spouse?” Rudd said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elysian Burial Gardens in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 19, 2020. As Utah families plan funerals, they are limited by the amount of people that can attend as government officials limit crowd sizes to slow the spread of coronavirus.