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News >  Spokane

Washington ban on funerals means Spokane-area funeral homes struggle to help families grieve

UPDATED: Sun., March 22, 2020

The Hennessey Funeral home, shown here in 2014, is one of many struggling to deal with a statewide ban on funerals imposed in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Hennessey Funeral home, shown here in 2014, is one of many struggling to deal with a statewide ban on funerals imposed in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Last week was a stressful time for Melissa Johnson of Hennessey Funeral Home and Crematory.

Johnson, a manager who accommodates grieving families during an inherently difficult time, had to enforce the limit of people allowed at the Spokane home’s ceremonies, the result of state and federal “social distancing” mandates instituted amid the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

Most families were disappointed but understanding, Johnson said. Others were furious, exclaiming that funerals should be exempt from the growing list of events and gatherings that have been dramatically altered in recent days.

“Things have been extremely difficult,” Johnson said. “The rules have changed a lot in just the last few days, and we’ve had to adjust with the changes, which has been hard for the families we serve and our staff members.”

If that wasn’t hard enough, the state’s funeral home industry was presented another hurdle on Thursday, when the Washington State Department of Licensing stated that funerals and memorial services are included in a statewide ban Gov. Jay Inslee imposed Monday on restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and other large groups of people.

Starting over the weekend, Hennessey Funeral Home and Crematory began direct burial and immediate cremation arrangements without ceremonies. Many families have rescheduled the ceremonies for a later date.

Burial sites around Washington can now only have mortuary workers at the gravesite.

At a time when loved ones seek closure, many have also been dealt uncertainty, some with religions and cultures with specific burial arrangements.

“This has been a very hard time for many of them,” said Johnson, whose business has offered a number of discounts with the recent changes.

Funerals at Hennessey last week included small groups of 10 to 12 people, which included immediate family, funeral home staff and a preacher.

Heritage Funeral and Crematory in Spokane has dealt with many of the same obstacles, and implemented the “6-foot rule” of distance between patrons and workers at the small ceremonies last week, one of several approaches aimed to curb the spread of the virus.

Now that funerals have been put on hold, Sandra Walker, vice president of business strategy for the Fairmount Memorial Association, which works in concert with Heritage, believes more families will continue to postpone the ceremonies.

“Our job is to encourage families for such a gathering, as it’s part of the grieving process,” Walker said. “Now we have to encourage them to postpone the celebration. We’re focused on taking care of the loved ones’ bodies, and the celebration at a later date.”

In handling the deceased, funeral homes and the health care workers they work with are now taking extra precautions as COVID-19 spreads.

Many are now wearing masks and other forms of protection.

Both Hennessey and Heritage have recently done their scheduling and consultations online and by phone as a social distancing practice.

The Washington State Funeral Directors Association addressed members on its website Thursday.

“It is the fundamental responsibility of every citizen to do their part to help suppress the spread of the virus,” the association wrote. “Professionally, you have a multi-point duty of care. This duty of care is equally and lawfully to public health and welfare; reverent, dignified care of the deceased; and compassion to those who grieve.

“This is a responsibility that each of you are well versed in. While we are passionate for our own personal causes, we must yield to commonsense and the greater public welfare in the application of our duties.”

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