Updated: Apr 27, 2020
"Can I touch the body of my loved one if they've died from COVID-19? Will I become infected if I attend a funeral with their body present?"
I have seen this question asked so many times, as well as whether or not funerals are all banned, so I wanted to provide information to the public.
This is information circulating to every funeral home but can be found on the World Health Organization's website.* I'm going to link the document (1) itself here.
This is important, especially if you are in the process of someone you love dying, or if someone you loves gets sick and dies from this virus. It's important that you know your rights here but to balance that knowledge with the reality of the pandemic.
Every funeral home has different protocols in general, but especially during this time. Death care professionals are among the most at-risk for exposure to the virus, because even though the infected person has died, other factors come into play.
A primary risk is contamination of the environment in which the person died. If it's at a home, the surfaces and other residents of that house are contaminated. Even in a facility there is risk of infection, including from the medical professionals attending or the deceased's surviving family.
This is a scary time for everyone, and even more so for those working on or adjacent to the front lines. Death care professionals not only risk infection in the above situations, but being vectors and carrying the virus to our families or to other areas we travel for work (like nursing homes). We have to be cautious, because the alternative is deadly.
While we are all following the same guidelines set forth by the Governor's recent Stay Home ordinance, some funeral homes are on more of a lock-down than others depending on their individual situation and policies. A lot of them have a no services at all policy right now, and I understand that. It's a protective measure for staff and the families they're trying to help.
However, there are circumstances in which families may be wondering if they can be present for a burial, have a vigil, etc.
I can only speak to the experience I am having with my employer, I cannot 100% speak to how other funeral homes answer these questions. We want to help people find a way to safely hold a ceremony to honor their loved ones, and we are still open to doing that on our grounds as long as:
The service has less than 10 people present
No food or drinks are being offered
Social distancing measures are being practiced (meaning you stay 6 ft apart unless you live together)
There is no gathering platform (e.g. a tent and chair setup) that encourages people to huddle together
We are encouraging people to record or livestream their services from our Facebook page to share with friends and family. We are prepared to help assist with this.
I want to provide some information on the safety of handling the body of someone who has died from COVID-19. Here are some key information points about how the virus spreads taken directly from the document (1) provided by WHO:
"Based on current evidence, the COVID-19 virus is transmitted between people through droplets, fomites and close contact, with possible spread through faeces. It is not airborne. As this is a new virus whose source and disease progression are not yet entirely clear, more precautions may be used until further information becomes available;
Except in cases of hemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola, Marburg) and cholera, dead bodies are generally not infectious. Only the lungs of patients with pandemic influenza, if handled improperly during an autopsy, can be infectious. Otherwise, cadavers do not transmit disease. It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true. Cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources;
To date there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from COVID-19;"
I want to reiterate the last point but emphasize that we still don't 100% know FOR SURE. So while there is still a lot we don't know about the virus, to date there is no evidence of someone contracting the virus after coming into contact with the body of someone who died from it. It appears that the bodies of those who died from the virus are not infectious unless you come into contact with specific fluids from the body or pick up the virus from the person's environment.
It goes on to recommend that, as as safety precaution, those who tend to the body wear Personal Protective Equipment or PPE (because a dead body can still have the virus on it or around the environment for a while post-death) which generally means medical quality gloves, gowns, and eye protection...and really good sanitation once that equipment is off of you and not being used (washyourhands).
There are various religious customs and situations in which certain members of the deceased's family or religious group needs to care for the body in a hands on way (this also applies to people wanting a home vigil or funeral/minimal funeral home involvement). While contact with someone who has died of COVID-19 is advised to be minimal, in these situations the people handling the body for ceremony need to at -least- wear proper protective gloves.
The document (1) goes on to state critical things such as: The rights and cultural values of the dead and their families should be respected and hasty disposition (burial, cremation, etc) of a body should be AVOIDED, meaning that funeral homes shouldn't panic and try to cremate as soon as possible just because they have someone who died of COVID-19 in their funeral home. Here is another pull straight from the document:
"The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout;
Hasty disposal of a dead from COVID-19 should be avoided;
Authorities should manage each situation on a case-by-case basis, balancing the rights of the family, the need to investigate the cause of death, and the risks of exposure to infection."
Also note that this is balanced with assessing the risk of infection in individual situation. This means that if a funeral facility deems the risk of infection too high, they may limit some of the services they're willing to perform or that would not comply with the state ordinance. Funeral homes don't want to tell people no. Their business is helping people memorialized their loved ones in critical times of loss. It is very hard to hear that we can't act on our grief, or the grief of those we care about, because we pose a threat to each other. It feels like, as a whole, we are being denied connection in a time that we need it more than ever. Unfortunately, like a lot of other things, this pandemic has put into action protective measures that can hurt as much as they keep us safe.
To get to the point, in this particular instance, living bodies are more of a threat to our health than dead bodies. This is why there is a limit on gatherings, including funerals. It is dangerous not because of the corpse in the room, but because living people congregate and accidentally spread the virus in ways that are incredibly difficult to control. In the event of a death not related to COVID-19, this is still true.
Funeral Homes are private businesses and you cannot demand that they open their doors to give you a big service or massively attended viewing for your loved one. However, you can find a funeral home that is willing to work with a group of less than 10 people to have a private funeral or memorial for your family. You can certainly do a similar small gathering yourself, at home, or even have a home funeral, but again anything you do right now has to be less than 10 people and you have to be able to enforce social distancing. Right now, it is the law. Not only is it the law, but it is socially responsible and potentially life saving.
I do not recommend having a home funeral if cannot guarantee the above protocol or if you don't have protective equipment/sanitizing agents available. At minimum, please open the WHO document (1) and read the guidelines under "Burial by family members or for deaths at home" before attempting any form of home service or post-mortem body care.
My best recommendation at this time is to think about what would be meaningful for your family, see if it can be done safely and responsibly and in accordance with the law, and then talk to your family and a funeral home employee about it. Please don't let the panic of this situation take away closure that you need.
While you cannot have anything large scale right now, you can still have a viewing. You can still have a small service and broadcast it to family. If you're planning on a home vigil, and the virus is a factor, arm yourself with the knowledge and protection needed to keep you safe. If you have ANY questions on proper protection or facts, email me immediately. Alternatively, call a funeral home or the public health office (like Lane County's) and ask for their recommendation for protections.
You can visit my previous entry for some ideas on small things you can do for memorials if none of those options are available to you. Above all, prioritize your health and safety and the health and safety of others. That's the only way we mitigate the terrible impact of this pandemic.
Love and Temperance,
* Please keep in mind that this situation changes every week, if not every day. This information may change. As of March 31, 2020 this information is accurate.
The Order of the Good Death COVID-19 Q&A
Talking About Death During COVID-19
CDC COVID-19 General FAQ