ROCK ISLAND, Ill — As all of Illinois moves into Tier 3 mitigations on Friday, Nov. 20, that means funeral homes can now only allow ten family members at a service. Staff at Wheelan-Pressly Funeral Home and Crematory in Rock Island say they're complying, for the safety of the families and their staff, but that it makes an already difficult grieving process... that much more painful.
"Funerals can't be postponed," said Joseph Perez, vice president and co-owner of Wheelan-Pressly. "And the ones that can... how long can you push that off for?"
He says that it's been a rollercoaster of a year, trying to keep up with all of the changing regulations at the funeral home. Some families, he says, have even had multiple loved ones pass away during different mitigation periods, which changed how many could be present for each funeral.
"Our staff and team want to do everything they can to accommodate a family during this time. But these families truly don't have a proper way to grieve," said Perez. "How do you pick which ten family members are supposed to be here?"
He says the stress of the new mitigations is difficult for both the staff, trying their best to serve the families in need, as well as those attending the service. To Perez, having a funeral provides a sense of normalcy that is vital to a proper grieving (and eventual healing) process. But for many, that opportunity has been ripped away this year.
Family present for the service must be wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, and practicing social distancing.
"And that becomes a hard process too. They can sit in the same room, but we try to seat them apart," noted Perez. "But a lot of the grieving process is how people share their expressions of sympathy with one another, and a lot of times that comes in the forms of handshakes, hugs and more."
In late spring and early summer, he says drive-through visitation services were a popular option. Friends and family members could drive through the parking lot, where the family would sit and chat with visitors. A screen would also show a livestream of the deceased individual, so everyone driving could pay their respects.
But as winter approaches, Perez worries that might not be realistic anymore. Drive-by's can last several hours, and he's concerned that cold, wind and rain might not allow the family to sit outside for an extended period of time.
Instead, Wheelan-Pressly has been offering increased livestreaming services to everyone who can't physically be at the funeral. They say their state of the art technology allows friends and family from across the country to tune in, on a secure link, and watch the service from the safety of their home.
Perez estimates between 80 and 85% of their funerals are now livestreamed, and says it's something they plan on continuing even after the pandemic is over.
But he says there's also still a major concern about the staff's wellbeing, "when they go out to take somebody into our care that might have passed from Covid. That puts them at a great risk, even though we use proper PPE."
The funeral home says they can perform services for individuals who have passed from the virus, as long as the body is embalmed. However, there have been several instances where the funeral must be postponed after a family member is exposed.
"Some families that lose an individual to Covid, if they were around them, we might have to delay the funeral for 10-14 days," Perez noted.
Even with all of the changes, he says the staff at Wheelan-Pressly are determined to do all they can to keep the families safe and cared for. He says they've all seen the very real impact of the virus - week after week, and month after month, since this spring.
"Talk to a family who's lost someone because of it. They could have been at Thanksgiving or Christmas this year, or been there for the birth of a grandchild, or shared in any of the future's special moments," said Perez. "With our hospitals being full, we just have to proceed with caution in our funeral gatherings, and unfortunately, that means the families can't go through the process they need."