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How funeral homes are adapting to social distancing amid coronavirus threat
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Ward's Funeral Home in Gainesville has signs up March 20, 2020, asking visitors to refrain from shaking hands and hugging during the coronavirus outbreak. - photo by Scott Rogers

Signs posted at Ward’s Funeral Home ask that visitors not shake hands or hug. It’s a strange request for grieving loved ones but important for health amid the ongoing coronavirus threat.

A family recently making arrangements wanted to postpone the memorial service indefinitely until “all of this has passed,” Ward’s Funeral Home owner John Wayne Abernathy said, referencing the outbreak and guidelines of social distancing.

“They want to say goodbye to their loved one in a proper way other than just doing something that’s real quick and it being done. They want to pay an adequate final tribute to their loved one,” Abernathy said.

Many families seeking funeral services have opted for a graveside service for family and a memorial service later.

“It’s sad that we’re having to resort to this. You can put off a trip or a vacation or something like that, but unfortunately when death happens, it’s pretty much you get one time to do it,” Abernathy said.

One local online obituary made direct reference to health concerns and protection of family and friends in canceling services.

The family asked people to share their stories and memories on the deceased’s Facebook page, writing that they understood “that there is fear in the community of large gatherings.”

Ben J. Mason, managing partner/funeral director at Little & Davenport Funeral Home, said the biggest change in the past two weeks has been families making arrangements by phone, email or fax.

“As far as the services, we really haven’t had anything right now,” he said. “But we’ve talked about maybe just doing graveside service with the family only, and the family could hold a celebration of life service at a later date once things are cleared up with this that’s going on now.”

The state has advised people should not gather in groups more than 10 in order to limit the spread of the virus.

“We’re still just trying to keep it as normal as we can, but we’re trying to adhere to the rules and the guidelines that they’re putting out for everyone else,” Mason said.

Once recommendations called for gatherings of 10 and fewer only, most families started making arrangements for family-only graveside services, Memorial Park Funeral Home president Kevin Wetzel said.

“We’ve been doing what families wanted, but families are doing what the government is saying on this,” Wetzel said. “They are staying away. There are very few big visitations now. Nobody wants to be around it.”

Hillside Chapel Funeral Home general manager Cindy Butler said one family’s plans changed to a graveside service “so that people are outside (and) can maintain social distancing that way.”

“We’re making sure we wipe the door handles and everything people touch if they come in with the sanitizing wipes,” she said. “Anything that we can do remotely, if the family feels more comfortable doing it by phone, we’ve been available to do that.”

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Ward's Funeral Home in Gainesville is taking steps to keep visitors safe, with hand sanitizer located throughout the funeral home and signs asking people to refrain from shaking hands and hugging during the coronavirus outbreak. - photo by Scott Rogers
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