COVID-19 deaths take toll on funeral homes

Business is booming at area funeral homes, but it is not the kind of business boom anyone wants to see — even them.

Funeral home directors had to rethink their business strategies as COVID-19 and unrelated deaths piled up, putting a strain on the industry, but also leading to some permanent positive changes for customers.

While most businesses saw fewer customers and eliminated services due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, that wasn’t the case at two area funeral homes.

In the past 11 months across Indiana, more than 11,800 Hoosiers have died from complications caused by the virus, and more than 400 were clinically diagnosed with COVID-19 after their death, according to data from the Indiana State Department of Health. In Johnson County, the virus killed 342 people, data shows. That meant more than 30 more deaths a month, on average, that area funeral homes had to find space for in their facilities and schedules.

Swartz Family Funeral Home in Franklin saw a 25% increase in business, while St. Pierre Family Funeral Homes, a chain with two funeral homes in Greenwood and a total of 11 around the state, saw 50% more business in 2020 compared to 2019, managers said.

The increase built gradually over the course of 2020, then took off in the fall when the county and state saw a marked increase in cases and deaths from late September through the holidays.

Finding room in the budget

Together, the 11 funeral homes owned by St. Pierre served more than 130 families who lost a loved one to the virus, said Paul St. Pierre, president.

The funeral home chain spent more than $30,000 to manage the influx of business and make operations safer, St. Pierre said.

“We can’t spend enough, though, to help families get through this time,” he said.

The chain added a refrigeration unit to accommodate more bodies, and had to close the chain’s two crematories to outside clients to accommodate its clients’ needs, St. Pierre said.

The company also invested in new technology, to give families the option to stay home. St. Pierre made it possible to plan funerals online, including a Zoom meeting option, a virtual tour of casket rooms and a feature that allows families to plan a cremation in about 20 minutes.

Their priority, though, was finding a way to connect with families quickly and with the level of personal connection all St. Pierre homes are known for, St. Pierre said.

“We want connection, whether we have to connect with families on Zoom or in-person,” he said. “We still want connection — it is just different and it will be for some time.”

Not every company can afford to invest so much in online resources, but an across-the-board need during the pandemic has been live-streaming capabilities, said St. Pierre, who serves as president of Selected Independent Funeral Homes, a national association.

Specialized personal protective equipment to handle COVID-19 infected bodies, face masks, cleaning products, hand sanitizer and digital thermometers were all additional, unexpected expenses funeral directors across the country had to find room in their budgets for, he said.

Navigating restrictions

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s emergency order limited attendance at funerals for much of 2020, and many who wanted to celebrate their loved one’s lives couldn’t. It posed a challenge for small funeral homes, such as the Swartz Family Funeral Home, which had to put in place capacity restrictions in an already small space, and it had to do it quickly.

In addition to adding live-streaming capabilities, Swartz took the extra step of adding an outdoor space for services under an awning attached to the building, said Scott Swartz, owner and funeral director. The space was outfitted with chairs and televisions, just like the indoor space, which provided a safe way to have a traditional service, he said.

Beyond the pandemic, another challenge for funeral homes was figuring out how to continue giving families the support they need and services they are used to, Swartz said.

“In the last six months, we have really had to be conscious of the number of deaths and still maintain the same standard of service to the families as we had beforehand,” Swartz said. “That was important to us.”

Even with the increase in business, most families were still able to get an appointment within a day or two of death, but sometimes planning around the coronavirus is a challenge, St. Pierre said. COVID-19 restrictions were especially challenging for families who are tasked with carrying out an already planned funeral, he said.

Some clients, at funeral homes large and small, are delaying services until the gathering limits expire to honor their loved one’s wishes to have more elaborate celebrations of life with many in attendance, directors said.

Lasting benefits 

The pandemic’s new emphasis on technology brought some benefits that are likely to stick around, they said.

Online resources allow families to come together for planning instead of those responsibilities falling to one person, and live-streams allow family and friends who can’t make it to a funeral to watch it online. It has widened audiences further than ever, St. Pierre said.

For example, a Swartz funeral was viewed as far away as Afghanistan. A local soldier’s friends, still stationed in Afghanistan, were able to watch the service from afar, something that never would have been possible before the pandemic, Swartz said.

As a result, many of the technology advancements will remain long after the pandemic is over, directors said.

The reduction in cases and deaths since mid-January brought some relief to funeral homes, and the vaccine offers an additional dose of hope.

Funeral homes receive bodies a short time after death, so individuals who died due to complications caused by the virus are still contagious when they arrive. As a result, funeral home professionals were eligible for vaccines in the first wave, along with health care workers and first responders, St. Pierre said. Now, most employees at St. Pierre are protected, he said.

The state’s vaccine plan is an age-based approach designed to reduce deaths and hospitalizations, state officials say. The goal is to take the strain off of funeral homes and hospitals.

Right now, Hoosiers 65 and older are eligible for vaccinations. Hoosiers ages 60 to 64 are up next. State data shows 64% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 were 60 or older. That same group accounts for 93% of all deaths due to complications caused by the virus.