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St. Louis Funeral Homes Help Families Mourn With Memorials A Year After Restrictions

Michael B. Thomas
St. Louis Public Radio
Funeral Director Eric Cunningham Jr. speaks with a family during an arrangement consultation at Reliable Funeral Home on Tuesday.

Many funeral homes are offering memorial celebrations for family members who were unable to grieve properly last year.

For months, funeral homes have had limited seating to help prevent the coronavirus from spreading. That led some families to delay celebrating their loved ones’ lives.

The pandemic robbed families of traditional forms of saying good-bye, said Donald Otto, executive director of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association.

“You couldn't have a funeral where people gathered together to grieve and mourn together, to pray together, to sing together, to cry together, to laugh together,” Otto said. “And for many people, that was taken away from them.”

Funeral homes in Missouri faced many challenges at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and some could not keep up with the demand for burials and cremations. Otto said many funeral directors were working 18-hour days instead of the normal 10- or 12-hour shifts.

Ordinarily, he said, funeral homes can boost their operations when there are multiple deaths, but last year was different.

“This time, instead of working at that peak capacity for a weekend or for a week, funeral homes were working at that peak capacity for months at a time,” Otto said. “And that was very stressful. That was very tiring.”

At Reliable Funeral Home in the Midtown area of St. Louis, providing funeral services during the pandemic was mentally stressful for both funeral directors and families, funeral director Eric Cunningham Jr. said. The small Black-owned funeral home performed about 60 funerals for people who lost their lives to the virus.

Cunningham said it was hard telling families they had to choose which family members could attend the funeral since they had limited seating available.

Michael B. Thomas
St. Louis Public Radio
Family and friends gather during a funeral service at Reliable Funeral Home on Tuesday. Last year, only a limited number of people were allowed to enter the chapel for funerals.

"It was horrible,” Cunningham said. “And I could speak for everybody that works in the funeral home, that was a horrible experience because I know, if that was me, how I would feel."

He said many people were angry that they could not honor their loved ones and celebrate their lives.

From March 2020 until about August 2020, Reliable only performed direct burials or cremations for people who died of the coronavirus. It continued to hold traditional services, though it offered limited seating, for people who died of other causes.

Although funeral homes were busy during the pandemic, some lost revenue because of the rise in cremations.

Now that funerals have leveled off, Otto said memorial celebrations provide closure for people who went months without saying good-bye to their loved one.

“This is a forced situation where you were required to wait one year, and that's not ideal, but it does at least give a chance to help fill in that void that you've been suffering this last 12, 13 months,” he said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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