Service during the COVID-19 era. What should I expect?

Families have told us it’s helpful to know what to expect for services conducted during the pandemic. All funeral homes must comply with state and federal regulations, which are updated often. Exactly how the directors may work within the regulations will vary from funeral home to funeral home based on building size, floor plans, staffing etc. Directors also must abide by the policies of the venue in which a service is held, even if the policy is more strict than the guidelines allow. The following information is based on how we provide for services at Acton Funeral Home and Boyle Brothers Funeral Home.

What should I expect at public visiting hours held during the pandemic?

The funeral home, churches and other venues hosting gatherings are public buildings. Masks or face coverings are mandatory except for those who are underage or have a medical condition that prevents wearing a mask. There are hand sanitizer stations located at the entrances/exits, and people are encouraged to use them at each opportunity. We cannot provide water or refreshments, so people who may need water or snacks as they wait should bring their own.

Pubic visiting is not so much a gathering as an opportunity for people to walk through to pay their respects, much like you see when there's a death in the fire and police departments and the line goes through without a lot of interaction.

Families may choose to have the casket or urn present, and floral displays are welcome. It’s fine to bring a sympathy or Mass card to the visiting hours, and there is a place near the registration area where you may safely leave it. In lieu of the register book, a staff member will ask people for their name, address and best contact information so we can provide a list in Excel and PDF to the family. Memorial cards will not be available for people to take; the idea is to keep people from touching things and possibly spreading the virus. Instead, if families choose to order the cards, they could be mailed to those who attend the services.

The family usually has the option of an open or closed casket, and the funeral staff will arrange this according to family preference. Visiting and service times are restricted, so you will not see two different sets of visiting or services going on at the same time in the building.

The number of people in the main room with the casket or urn is limited, and the family will decide ahead of time who will be in that area. There may be other areas where additional family members may stay throughout the visiting, but this will vary. The pattern visitors follow into the main room go by these areas so extended family and visitors can see one another.

The visitors’ line is arranged as to disburse everyone throughout the entire funeral home as they wait to pay their respects. All are socially distanced with their household and admitted into the funeral home and main room as space allows. Stanchions often used in public buildings are set up in the funeral home to guide people through the building, and as a reminder to social distance. There won't be an opportunity for people to stay and talk for any amount of time, as we have to keep people moving through and back outside. The places in the funeral home where people often gather in groups to talk and wait aren't available, and the usual hugs and handshakes shouldn't be done.

What can I expect if invited to attend a private church service?

The churches have strict guidelines to keep everyone safe. The following is a general description of what to expect, but each church has a specific policy.

Hand disinfection may be required at the entrance, and social distancing and capacity limits will be enforced. Some churches may require a list of guests to be submitted. The usual service programs and worship aids will not be available. The length of the service may be abbreviated where possible to bring down the amount of time everyone is in the shared space.

You may be asked to form groups outside before entering according to with whom you'll be seated. You should only be in a group that's the same as your household circle or has already been together well before the service. People who travel distances, even if immediate family, should be seated on their own to limit contact in case they are carrying the virus unknowingly.

Once organized you'll enter the church and seated row by row. All churches have pews that are blocked to keep social distancing, so no one will be in consecutive rows. People will be spaced within the row as households, again to maintain social distance.

During the service the clergy may stay within confines to avoid close interaction with the congregation. Although music is still and important part of the service, singing will be limited. If the casket or urn is present, it will most likely be escorted into place without a procession into church. Pall bearers may or may not be allowed, or their task may be limited to carrying in and out of church vestibule area.

If you are attending a funeral that includes communion, the priest, rector or minister will give specific instructions, and will don a mask. In general, you will approach the altar individually as usual, but wait at social distancing marks on the floor until it's time to move forward. You should keep your mask in place until after the clergy gives you communion. You must receive in hand; the clergy will reach to you with arm fully extended, and you should do the same so both people are standing as far apart as possible. Then you should step away to the side (some churches have marked areas to where you should move), stop, remove your mask, take communion, replace your mask and return to your pew.

At the end of the service, you'll be asked to remain in place until the staff direct you from your pew to the exit. This process is also done row by row to avoid people crossing into one another's space. The casket or urn will be moved to the hearse by funeral home staff after everyone is clear of the space. Depending on the church policy, pall bearers may be able to help carry from the church vestibule to the hearse.

What can I expect at graveside services?

This may vary greatly from cemetery to cemetery. Most cemeteries in the immediate area are adhering to the 10 person limit at graveside. Depending on cemetery policy, pall bearers may or may not be allowed to help carry the casket from the hearse to the grave. The family should decide ahead of time who will be invited to stand at the casket for the final services. Some cemeteries allow other people to join us at the cemetery but will be asked to stay by their cars. At the conclusion of the service where allowed, people will drive by the graveside in respect to the family. Families cannot linger at the gravesite, and most cemeteries are not offering the option of people to stay while the casket is lowered. This is to limit the amount of time the family, cemetery, vault company and funeral home staffs are in close proximity.

The most common questions are why are there strict capacity limits, and why are masks/facial coverings required when we are outside?

Most cemetery, clergy, vault company and funeral home staff prefer, and in some places will require, that you continue to wear your mask or face covering, even though we are outside. We want to protect the family and friends, as these groups of service people are exposed to many people and/or often work with different groups or individuals in one day, many of whom are part of a compromised population. And the service people must be protected from attendees, who are not only from different households but very often from different parts of the country. It sounds picky but we are trying to do what is safest for all concerned.

Cemetery capacity limits are in place for the same reason. In addition since currently all indoor venues have limits, it may be tempting for families to try to organize a larger outdoor service at the cemetery. The cemetery doesn't have the staff or equipment to handle large crowds, and it's not in keeping with the spirit of the current restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.