Funeral homes balance safety with need for grieving

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By Roger Cleaveland, Republican-American

Jim Mengacci, one of three owners of the Buckmiller, Thurston and Mengacci Funeral Home, stands at the entrance to the funeral home in Naugatuck on Saturday. -BILL SHETTLE/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Funeral directors are working to balance safety amid the COVID-19 outbreak with the need for closure for family and friends of the deceased.

“It’s a very difficult time for families that have lost someone,” said Jim Mengacci, the owner and funeral director for Buckmiller-Thurston-Mengacci Funeral Home in Naugatuck. “It’s not their fault that their loved one passed away during this pandemic so they are not able to have the type of services they wanted or thought they would have. That compounds the stress for them. It is very sad.”

Based on advice from the Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, municipal leaders and President Donald Trump, the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association (CFDA) strongly recommended that funeral service calling hours be limited to gatherings of 10 people.

“People have been graciously and cautiously listening to the requests,” said Raymond A. Albini, the owner and funeral director of Chase Parkway Memorial in Waterbury. “We haven’t had any family say, ‘We are having a funeral with 35 cars.’ First of all, we wouldn’t allow it, but secondly people don’t want to get sick or cause anyone else to get sick celebrating the life of a loved one, so everyone is abiding by the rules.”

Individual funeral homes are interpreting social distancing rules differently to suit the emotional needs of families during the grieving process. The funeral association’s maximum of 10 people, which includes the funeral director, is only a strong recommendation and not a mandate.

Albini said he has used compassion and common sense during calling hours. In the last week he has had gatherings of 14, nine and 10 people with one cemetery committal service of 19 people because there was more room there to allow for six feet of spacing between attendees.

“One of my personal beliefs with respect to private viewing is that the final goodbye is one of the most important pieces of the whole process,” said Dan Ford, president of Alderson-Ford Funeral Home with locations in Waterbury, Cheshire and Naugatuck. “The idea of saying goodbye one last time is unbelievably powerful and important.”

Ford said, however, that he has to take into consideration the health of those people attending public viewings and his staff.

“I want to make sure they are not subjected to anything because of a crowd of people, as well-meaning as those people may be in wanting to pay respects. These recommendations are put into place for a reason,” he said.

Ford strictly adheres to gathering recommendations and will split some families up to allow older or higher-risk individuals within a family to do smaller group or individual viewings within the 10-person limit.

Ford is a past president of the funeral association and is on the board of directors of the National Funeral Directors Association. From his conversations with funeral directors nationwide, he said “the number 10 seems to be resonating across the country and not just in this neck of the woods.”

There are clearly exceptions. Buckmiller-Thurston-Mengacci funeral homes have big enough viewing areas that they don’t count immediate family members toward the 10-person limit. Mengacci then allows 10 people at a time to pay their respects to the deceased and the immediate family.

“We haven’t had a service like we would have had in the past where everyone gathers in the same room for a formal service,” he said. “We are asking folks to come in, pay their respects and leave immediately. Then we bring in the next group.”

Mengacci had approximately 100 people — 10 at a time — during calling hours for one deceased person in the last week.

“It’s more delicate than other gatherings, because there has been a loss and real emotion involved,” Mengacci said. “We are working very close with the families and working within the guidelines as best as we possibly can. I can’t stress enough that everyone has been extremely respectful, understanding and compliant.”

Jeff Thurston, the owner and funeral director at Rowe Funeral Home in Litchfield, takes the same approach in allowing gatherings of 10 people at a time. He said he has had as many as 150 people during a three, four-hour calling hours.

“Calling hours are designed for a flow of people to come in and out anyway,” Thurston said. “The only time we have an issue is when you have many people decide to show up at the same time. Then we have people congregating in the parking lot or waiting in their own cars. It depends upon who the people are and how concerned they are about spreading any potential germs.”

Ford said rather than allow emotional friends and extended family members make such decisions, his funeral homes have chosen to be stricter.

“There is a level of disappointment when people make arrangements and understand they can’t have three hours of calling hours,” Ford said. “They aren’t calling and looking for that off the bat now. They understand they simply can’t do that. It is very difficult, in my opinion without judging anyone else, to have a group of 150 people and still maintain their distances of the recommended six feet.”