Coronavirus prompts changes to funeral industry amid concerns of 'unprecedented' situation

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AUSTIN, Texas – Funeral homes around the country are preparing for the rise in deaths attributed to the coronavirus -- at a time when government officials are calling for social distancing -- setting up different protocols to help navigate these uncertain waters.

The Texas Funeral Commission, as well as the Texas Funeral Directors Association, are having meetings to make sure they are prepared as the deaths attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to rise.

“For this to be not just a state-wide issue, but actually a full country- or world-wide issue is really unprecedented for us,” Glenn Bower, executive director for the Texas Funeral Commission, told Fox News. “Our office is actually setting up protocols to be distributed to all of the funeral directors in the state of Texas on how to safely navigate through these waters right now.”

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The Lone Star State has recorded more than 8,000 positive cases of coronavirus and has seen at least 154 deaths as of Wednesday early afternoon.

Texas funeral homes among more than 19,000 across the country implementing mandates of ten people or less at funeral services.

Texas funeral homes among more than 19,000 across the country implementing mandates of ten people or less at funeral services.

Gene Allen, owner of a Texas funeral home and president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association, did not disclose to Fox News how the state is preparing for the possibility of a higher death rate. He said, however, that funeral directors across the state and municipalities are working with emergency management coordinators to “put things in place to make sure everything is covered."

“I was in a meeting going over proper procedures to abide by and what we are going to do in the event that this becomes a larger scope of crisis than what we are currently seeing,” he said.

Allen said they are following mandates given by the federal and local governments – and it changes each day.

“There is never a day like the previous day, it is always something different,” he said. “Not only are things changing daily, they are actually changing hourly now, too. It seems like I am either getting a text or an email from the state or wherever with new mandates, new rules or new information.”

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The most impactful mandate from government officials is that funeral services should only have 10 people – and that includes staff members from the funeral home and the cemetery. In Texas, if the mandate is violated, it comes with a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail.

“The biggest adjustment has been telling family members there is no wiggle room on that number and you have to remind them that the number includes the funeral director and someone from the clergy field,” Allen said. “So that gives 8 family members the opportunity to be there for a service. And, when you have a large family, that really is tough.”

Funeral homes are now offering things like live streaming to help people attend memorials during the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Funeral homes are now offering things like live streaming to help people attend memorials during the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Allen said funeral homes are trying to work within these guidelines and are developing creative ways to serve families.

“Myself and many other funeral homes in the State of Texas have certainly jumped on the bandwagon of livestreaming,” he said. “We are also asking families if they want to do something very small and private now and then come back later when the mandates are lifted and have a public memorial.”

Bower said the Texas Funeral Commission also supports funeral homes offering longer visitation hours so people can pay their respects and abide by social distancing guidelines.

“I am actually giving the funeral homes ideas about having a camera on the deceased in the casket,” Bower said. “There are online memorial books where people can sign in digitally or in person and I also know funeral homes have set up a drive-thru so people can see the deceased.”

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Bower added funeral homes can record services and post to their websites so families can see them

“It’s a very odd time for all of us, so while we have a responsibility to offer funeral services to our families who are grieving, we also need to be very smart about how we go about doing that.”

Allen, who describes the funeral industry as a “ministry” and not just a job, said seeing the impact this has on the families he services can be difficult.

“I think probably the biggest thing I would want to say to families is, ‘We feel your hurt, we feel your pain, but we are here for you, we are here to help you and guide you through this,” Allen said.

The funeral home owner added his organization just received their first coronavirus-related death and said it’s “a little scary” and concerning that this could be the new norm moving forward.

“It’s not near so much scary for me, but for my staff. All of them have families and I don’t want anybody exposed or infected,” Allen said. “We are being reminded daily of the precautions we have to take as we move forward.”

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And while these uncharted waters provide more questions than answers, the Texas Funeral Commission alongside Allen said they are ready to do what’s needed for their families.

“I think we are in the mindset right now of just, we have to do what we have to do to get through this,” Allen said. “Hopefully, when we get to the other side of the hill, we can get back to some kind of normality.”