MANSFIELD -- Funeral homes in Richland County have kept busy over the past two months, learning to handle job changes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pamela Williams-Briggs, owner of Williams Funeral Home in Mansfield, and her staff are continuing to work with families to create a proper environment for services while making sure coronavirus doesn't spread.
"We have gloves and masks available, and we are social distancing," Williams-Briggs said. "Families do have the option of sitting close together, if they feel comfortable. They can lean on each other."
Snyder Funeral Home has seen a dramatic change in how operations are running, according to Todd Snyder, chief executive officer of the 16 area funeral homes.
"Funerals are a public response to the loss of someone," he said. "We have suspended calling hours, which is now pretty much the same across the state of Ohio."
Now, Snyder Funeral Homes hosts private viewings for family members, allowing 10 mourners at a time. Sometimes, private viewings can last five hours for 50 viewers, Snyder said.
"We have to put ourselves in (our client's) place," Snyder said. "Cancer doesn't stop because of a pandemic. A heart attack isn't less devastating."
Snyder said his funeral directors are feeling more burdened during the pandemic.
"We are a very compassionate model here," he said. "We are very open; we serve with hugs and human touch. Social distancing is foreign to us."
He said speaking to clients over the phone is one of the hardest barriers his staff has had to overcome because it's harder to establish a rapport with clients.
Williams-Briggs said her clients may select up to 50 people to come to their viewings. Those chosen are given an invitation which they must bring to the service.
"That way we know it's not some random person, and we know how many people are in attendance," she said.
Williams-Briggs added she and her staff will sign names in the guestbook for families, an alternative to the traditional way of guests singing their own names.
"This way the pen isn't touching so many hands and germs aren't being transferred as much. As an embalmer, we are taking precautions like always, these are just extra steps we are taking," she said.
Many funeral homes stream their services on the internet for those who cannot attend the funerals in person. Snyder Funeral home links a video to the obituaries on its website.
Jake Penwell, owner of Penwell Funeral Home in Shelby, said he has not seen a huge uptick in deaths during the pandemic.
"I think people are staying inside. There's not a ton of places for people to go," Penwell said.
He is allowing clients to dictate how his firm handles the services, he said.
"So far, all of our families are choosing private viewings and burial services," he said. "But funeral homes are exempt from gubernatorial orders. I'm leaving it up to them; everything is case by case."
He added he is using chairs and surfaces that can be easily cleaned.
Snyder said he worries about the long-term dynamic in how the pandemic may change mourning.
"I think there will be studies about this," he said. "A funeral is meant to be the way the bereaved feel support. Remove that and people have to grieve in isolation.
"We consider our services more than being professional at handling the dead. We're also experts at getting those in mourning through (a death). This could take months," Snyder said.