COVID-19 alters way funerals are handled

Posted 4/5/20

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life in the south. Diana Mayhall’s mother, Barbara Key of Birmingham, died March 27. Had she passed away last August when she had a severe stroke, hundreds of …

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COVID-19 alters way funerals are handled


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life in the south. Diana Mayhall’s mother, Barbara Key of Birmingham, died March 27. Had she passed away last August when she had a severe stroke, hundreds of relatives and friends would have probably stood in line to express condolences to the family. But on Monday, there were only nine family members at her graveside service. 

Mayhall, of Jasper, was emotional as she described the last months of her mother’s life.

After Key’s stroke last summer, the treatment was successful, but complications persisted, and her condition declined. Hospice workers came in daily to help, but they told the family that she was transitioning. At one point, she was sleeping 20 hours a day.

Mayhall was thankful that her mother was at home during this time because the family could spend those last weeks by her side. 

Toward the end, Key had slumped over in the bed, so Mayhall told her that she was going to adjust her a little. A moment later, her mother asked with perfect clarity, “What did you say, honey?”  Mayhall repeated what she’d said. “Well, a girl likes to know what direction she’s facing.” Those were the last coherent words she said to her daughter.

The hospice care people changed their approach due to COVID-19. They offered to visit less, so there was less exposure in the house. “They came in the house already gloved,” Mayhall said. There was also less, unnecessary touching, according to Mayhall. 

The workers kept a safe distance from each family member who was there during their visits. The team was also disinfecting their equipment even more than they usually did, and they spent less time in the house.

Her mother lived in the same house for over 60 years, and many of her neighbors had passed away, but there were still a lot of children who were friends with her mom. Most of her friends were church friends. 

Mayhall teared up when she described the decision to keep the service limited to immediate family. “My mother would have never risked anybody for that,” she said. “There are things that are so ingrained in us – the touching and the hugging that you do without thinking about it,” she said. “We just didn’t want to put anyone in that position.”

The funeral director told Mayhall that they could have up to 15 people at the graveside service, but only nine family members attended. Her three brothers, two sister-in-law’s, and two nieces and nephews joined Mayhall and her husband Jonathan at the cemetery.

“There was nothing comical about going to the office (to make the arrangements), but it almost WAS in a way,” she said. All office members were wearing their light blue latex gloves and walking behind everyone with disinfectant wipes. The chairs were spaced a safe distance between each other.

The funeral director gave them the pen they used to fill out the paperwork. “It was a strange experience,” she said. “Even among my siblings, we didn’t hug.”

It was difficult to find an open florist for the flowers, according to Mayhall. She requested hydrangeas and dogwood blossoms. They weren’t sure what they could get because the supply chain had been disrupted due to the virus too.

The florist was confident he could get hydrangeas but didn’t think he could get dogwoods. He couldn’t order the dogwoods, but he went out into his yard and cut them from trees in his yard. “I thought that was such a lovely thing,” she said.

Just before the graveside service began, family members were allowed to see Mrs. Key in the chapel. “Jonathan and I went in by ourselves, then some of the others came afterward by themselves,” she said. “It was intimate, but very much not a (usual) family get together.”

There were chairs at the graveside, but they were spaced a safe distance between each other. Her husband, Jonathan, conducted the service.

Mayhall fought back the tears as she described the scene. “It was a surreal experience. Jonathan and I held hands, but none of the rest of us hugged. It was just strange.” 

Pre-need director Aaron Warren at Collin-Burke Funeral Home in Jasper described how funerals have changed during the current situation.

“The state funeral director’s board recommended we go to direct burial (graveside services) first,” Warren said.

If the family insists on a visitation, the board recommended that funeral homes offer live streaming service.

If the family wants an onsite visitation, only 10 people at a time and they must maintain at least six-foot distance between each person. The board is also recommending that funeral homes offer teleconferencing options instead of having the family come onsite to plan the funerals face to face.