Local funeral directors reflect on their role throughout pandemic; some concerned about ‘the mental health crisis coming next’

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Lisa Manley (left) and Audrey Bell are funeral directors at Warren-McElwain Mortuary. They are pictured on Friday, May 21, 2021 at the mortuary.

The families with whom funeral director Todd Miller works are often able to say goodbye to their loved ones prior to their deaths. But in 2020, many families weren’t given that chance.

Long-term care facilities closed their doors to visitors, and travel restrictions and health precautions kept many people at home. So when families came to Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home & Crematory to plan arrangements, the first thing many people wanted to do was simply see the deceased.

“You know, I can’t tell you how many families would come in and they would say, ‘When can we see Mom? When can we see Dad? We haven’t seen them in months,'” Miller said. “So that tore me up horribly to see that.”

Accommodating the families who were undergoing these unusual circumstances was one of the more difficult aspects of Miller’s job throughout the pandemic, he said.

“How do you help someone that’s upset that they haven’t been able to see their mom for six months?” he asked.

photo by: Lauren Fox

Funeral directors Todd Miller, left, and Bart Yost, right, are pictured outside Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home & Crematory on May 18.

The Journal-World spoke to funeral directors at two Lawrence funeral homes, Rumsey-Yost and Warren-McElwain Mortuary, about what their experience was like serving people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaders at the two funeral homes said their operations remained largely the same, but they did have to adjust to some new circumstances, such as providing virtual service options.

Audrey Bell and Lisa Manley, funeral directors at Warren-McElwain, said their company bought FM transmitters and invited people to listen to funeral services from their cars within a mile radius of the funeral home. They also offered expanded visitation hours to prevent crowding. Normally, a visitation would last two hours, but throughout the pandemic they hosted some that lasted nearly all day. One of the most popular options was live-streaming services. Like Bell and Manley, Miller said he thought live-streamed services would remain a common option in the future.

Bart Yost, another funeral director at Rumsey-Yost who spoke to the Journal-World, said most people who wanted to participate could.

“Between Facebook, Zoom and transmitting the services on FM, most people at least had an avenue to participate in some form,” he said.

Despite the pandemic, the two funeral homes didn’t see an increase in the deaths they handled during 2020. Bell and Manley said Warren-McElwain had its typical number, over 300, and Yost said Rumsey-Yost had its typical number: about 350. In terms of hosting funeral services or visitations, however, there was a decrease. Yost said only about 40% of families held funeral services, and of those 40%, a large majority were private services. As for Warren-McElwain, Manley said about 75% of its clients held some sort of service, but that some planned to hold another, larger service at a later time. Some of the postponed services are starting to occur now, Yost and Manley said of their respective funeral homes.

When asked if they were concerned about handling the bodies of people who had died of COVID-19, Miller said he was a “little bit” nervous, but that he and his coworkers took virtual classes on the subject. Miller also said that they always took universal precautions when handling bodies, such as wearing gloves, gowns and face shields, because they typically don’t know how the person died.

Because of that, the funeral directors at Rumsey-Yost and Warren-McElwain said they had a good supply of personal protective equipment on hand at the beginning of the pandemic. As the pandemic went on, however, some supplies were “hard and expensive” to acquire, Bell said. But overall, both funeral home directors said they managed.

At a time when other businesses in Lawrence shifted to a work-from-home model, the role of funeral directors largely stayed the same. Bell credited that stability for helping keep the Warren-McElwain team in a positive mental state.

“We feel so fortunate that we got to come to work everyday. And maybe we didn’t have to go through some of the struggles that other people had to deal with, even though we deal with terrible things here,” Bell said.

“But we are a team here, and the team was always together throughout this,” Manley added.

Bell and Manley expressed concern over the mental health of the Douglas County community as a whole. They normally see about three suicides at the end of a calendar year. At the end of 2020, they didn’t have any, but in March and April, they saw just under 10 suicides. All the suicides were people under the age of 32.

“It hit more in the spring — and it hit two to three times harder than we would normally see in the winter,” Bell said.

“I felt like in these classes that we kept taking, they kept talking about … the mental health crisis coming next,” Bell said, referring to classes the staff at Warren-McElwain took in response to the pandemic. “It’s been emotional the last couple months here for mental health for our county. Lawrence was not in a good place there for a couple weeks. So for our staff to see the mental health crisis of all the suicides, that’s hard to process.”

As for Rumsey-Yost, Miller said they’ve had a few recent suicides, but that they haven’t noticed an unusual amount in recent months. Miller did say that suicides have become more prevalent in recent years, however, and Yost agreed.

“It used to be if there was a suicide it was like, ‘Wow,'” Yost said. “Now it’s almost, unfortunately — I don’t want to say common, but it’s just a lot more prevalent than it used to be.”

Reimbursement available for funeral costs associated with COVID-19 deaths

In April, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) implemented a funeral assistance program. Anyone who has incurred funeral expenses after Jan. 20, 2020, for deaths attributed to COVID-19 can receive up to $9,000 per funeral and a maximum of $35,000 per application. Any pre-planned or pre-paid funerals are not eligible for reimbursement.

To apply for the funeral assistance, and for more information, go to fema.gov/disasters/coronavirus/economic/funeral-assistance or call 844-684-6333.

Bell, Manley, Miller and Yost said any of their clients who incurred expenses for the funeral of someone who died of COVID-19 or COVID-19-related illness may call them to ask about the application process. Bell and Manley said they have not heard of any issues from clients who have applied for assistance, but Miller and Yost said some of their clients have complained about FEMA not following through on the conditions of the assistance program.


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