October 21, 2021

Virus changes even how funerals conducted

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

The Cortland Rural Cemetery off Tompkins Street is pictured in this September Cortland Standard file photo.

Public measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus have affected not only how we live and work, but also how we die, and how we grieve for those we’ve lost.

Ten people – that’s the maximum number of people you can now have at a funeral in New York, and that number includes the pastor and funeral staff but is otherwise restricted to the immediate family, said Bryan Riccardi, owner of Riccardi Funeral Home in Cortland.

No more big, open, public services in churches, he said, at least for the immediate future. Now it’s just a handful of people in a funeral home or a cemetery for a brief gathering, he said. Visitations are also not happening.

“I think the hardest thing for me is having to explain to a family that their mom isn’t going to have the funeral that they wanted,” Riccardi said.

This just happened twice recently – he had to tell families who wanted big public funerals and visitation that they couldn’t have them.

“Both of them — they just could not happen. There was just no way,” Riccardi said. “Both families were very understanding. They certainly knew, and they didn’t want to cause a problem.”

The entire experience is different – and very contrary to his nature and how he conducts business, he said. Having grown up in the area, Riccardi knows many of his customers, and his natural impulse when they come to his funeral home is to hug them, comfort them, shake their hands at the very least.

“And we can do that,” he said. “That’s just not my style. That’s been really hard.”

Moreover, he now approaches clients wearing a mask and gloves and at a distance of at least 6 feet. That level of physical separation also makes it harder to emotionally connect with people, he said.

“For the first time in my life, we wear masks and gloves,” Riccardi said. “It’s awkward. I mean, people you know — some of them you’ve known your whole life — and you can’t be the person or the director that you are. You just have to be careful for everybody’s sake.”

But the effect of the current prohibitions go beyond their immediate changes, said Joe Bowers, owner of the Perkins Funeral Home in Dryden.

Headstones, for instance. These days, people aren’t buying them, mainly because they can’t pick them out in person, he said. While funeral homes are considered essential businesses, headstone sales are not. Because Perkins does both, half Bowers’ business is shut down, while the other functions under state restrictions.

That means people are putting off buying the headstones, which only prolongs the process, which, in turn, can extend the grieving process, he said, since it delays a sense of closure.

Resolving estates has also been thrown into limbo, because local courts are now on hold. That drags things out even more, making a difficult time even more difficult.

“This has definitely had an effect that we never would have expected to happen,” Bowers said. “This has been having an effect on every kind of business. I don’t know anyone who has not been affected.”

Together, these changes make it harder to celebrate the life of the deceased, and harder for families to process their grief, Bowers said.

“Part of that is having a service — accepting that someone has passed,” he said. “But if you can’t do this, that just prolongs everything.”

“It’s a different world,” Riccardi said. “It certainly is a different world.”