By Brian Soergel
Beacon reporter 

Funeral home adapts to coronavirus changes

Cemeteries also have changed procedures

Series: Coronavirus | Story 61

Last updated 4/23/2020 at 1:32pm

Photo courtesy of Parker Letson

Beck's Tribute Center owner Jim Letson: "I guarantee you it's safe to assume every funeral home has dealt with COVID-related cases."

Due to coronavirus restrictions, we've all read and seen heartbreaking images of families tearfully waving to their loved ones in nursing homes. And we've seen men, women, and children holding up homemade signs of love and support to their loved ones in hospitals, who can only watch and wave from quarantined rooms.

Everyday norms have been upended, and that can include new ways of communicating to the sick, but also the mourning of those who have died from the COVID-19 disease.

At Beck's Tribute Center, founded in Edmonds more than 65 years ago, that means taking a new look at how to run services and daily operations.

As Beck's explores ways to provide comfort and support to families who experience loss during this challenging time, it has pivoted to the creative use of technology for families to connect, share, honor, and support each other.

"The importance of human connection, and the power of support for one another, has never been more evident than now," said Beck's owner Jim Letson. "We'll do our part to make you aware of all your options. Livestreaming events and video conferencing are easily adapted to use in our profession, and all are encouraged to consider them as tools."

Letson recently signed an agreement with OneRoom, a company that works with funeral homes, to provide professional-level livestreaming, which will be installed in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, Beck's has taken advantage of Facebook Live and other tools to connect with families.

"We really want to limit visits for everybody's safety," Letson said. "And so this will allow people to livestream a service and send invitations for people to log in from any place in the world. It will be linked on our website. And it will be archived so that it can be watched at other times or multiple times by family and friends."

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Although Gov. Jay Inslee originally banned viewings at funeral homes, in late March he lifted the restriction to allow viewings at funeral homes only by immediate family members of the deceased. In the move, he also ordered viewers to use proper social distancing established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as using personal protection.

Letson said the number of services at Beck's has actually decreased, as churches have closed and those who have lost loved ones are delaying services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Another change at Beck's is the manner in which the deceased are transferred to the funeral home, through hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers, adult family homes, and private residences.

Employees who pick up the deceased have practiced universal precautions for years.

"But what we're seeing," Letson said, "is a greater sensitivity of the potential for transmission of infection at the adult family homes or in cases where the death occurs at a residence or a nursing facility.

"We've had situations where our people had to suit up and in protective garb for even entering a facility. That is somewhat different from the past, but our practices in terms of handling deceased individuals are much as they've always been – the assumption that every deceased person represents a potential for infection."

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Because of the current social-distancing awareness, Beck's has seen fewer memorials in its office on Fifth Avenue South. That's even with the COVID deaths, which reached 11 in Edmonds early this week.

"I guarantee you it's safe to assume every funeral home has dealt with COVID-related cases," Letson said. "The COVID infection doesn't necessarily have to be the primary cause of death that would be shown on the death certificate, but it can be a contributing factor. We've dealt with them. Every funeral home has."

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Letson said that his funeral home is aware of the pain people are going through.

"You know, we really are sensitive to the fact that people are experiencing loss in this really challenging time," he said. "And people are having to do it at a time when connections are challenged and we're all being encouraged to stay separate from one another.

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"Our challenge, and what we're trying to do every day, is find a way for people to be supportive of those who are going through a loss and do it in ways that we haven't been able to do in the past. We are just going to continue on our way of helping people find those connections.

"It's extremely important for people to find a way to attend an event in some way. It's part of a healthy grieving process."

Edmonds Memorial Cemetery

Gov. Inslee's restrictions have also affected cemeteries, with only immediate family members allowed at cemetery services, and even then, groups are limited to 10 people.

Last Friday, Edmonds Memorial Cemetery sexton Cliff Edwards said he finished a burial mid-morning by himself.

"I talked with the family about it, and they were all good with it," Edwards said. "They knew what's going on. I told them that after 12 noon they could come to the cemetery and visit, but don't bring the whole crowd.

"If you do, I will have to break it up and send you all on your way. Whatever you do after 3:30 when I leave, that's up to you. But I told them that I've got some neighbors that if they see you in a congregation, they will call the cops."

Changes in protocol means Edwards sees fewer people in his office and relies more on email and phone calls.

"Every time I get a customer in here, I sanitize the whole place and wear a mask and gloves," he said. "When I'm dealing with people, for example, I might have to take a credit card, so the gloves are on. It's kept my appointments down because I have to allow for a half hour to clean in between each person showing up."

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Edwards is still working full time, and his chores continue as ever. The cemetery's lawn needs to be mowed, pandemic or not.


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