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The New York Times recently called funeral directors “the last responders on the front lines,” a crucial final link in how society handles the coronavirus pandemic or any tragedy, “the people who come after someone has died.”

As West Virginia begins its reopening after weeks of governor’s stay-at-home orders, funeral homes are returning to business as usual. But three local funeral professionals say COVID-19 and its social distancing restrictions are quickly changing our culture’s traditional mourning practices.

“There’s not been as much visitation, obviously. The services have been more private. When relatives can’t come in from out of town, that’s a big change to the mourning process,” said George Gribben, president of Carpenter & Ford Funeral Home in Fairmont.

Chad Hutson, president of Hutson’s Funeral Home in Farmington, said the role funeral homes play in small-town life should not be underestimated.

“Funeral homes are the cornerstones of these small towns. They’re where people congregate. People visit each other here. They pay their respects and they catch up,” Hutson said. “Old friends and people from out-of-state who come in for a funeral, who see people they haven’t seen for years. All that has stopped.”

For such a ritual of Appalachian society to cease so suddenly has been unnerving, said Hutson.

“It’s been a strange trip, it really has. You can’t even give a person a hug, which goes against the complete grain of the way funeral directors do things,” said Hutson. “It prevents me from doing what had drawn me to the funeral business, which is to comfort people at their worst time.”

Hutson said people need closure and that’s what a memorial service provides.

“Funeral services force us to turn that page, but now we’re waiting months for closure to happen. It’s not healthy, psychologically and spiritually. There’s a delay in the grieving process and this is hanging over people’s heads,” Hutson said.

David Domico, president of Domico Funeral Home in Fairmont, said he feels for the families who lost loved ones recently and have had to forego a memorial service to the near future.

“It’s changed the business. The traditional funeral has really been hurt. When people aren’t allowed to have the traditional goodbyes that West Virginians are accustomed to, that hurts. And a lot of families have been hurt by that,” Domico said. “I understand the reason for the rules, but it’s just a shame. But what are you going to do? We have to try to keep everyone safe.”

All three funeral directors say coronavirus-era-inspired initiatives such as memorial services broadcast live on the internet are not going away.

“We’ve done several streaming funeral services. The technology has certainly been helpful, especially when people can’t travel in,” said Gribben. “We’ve had video services with basically nobody there except a minister. We’ve had streaming services with immediate family only. Now we’re able to have small gatherings of 25 people or less and stream the memorial service.”

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