Years ago, when others in his field experimenting with drive-thru funeral homes, Demetrios Herron was bewildered.
“I thought, how lazy could we be to not get out of our car and go pay respects to a loved one?” the Allentown and Bethlehem-based funeral director told NBC10.
Despite past negative comparisons to McDonald’s or the bank, the drive-thru funeral visitation is coming back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limit gatherings to 10 people. At funerals and viewings, that could mean only eight or nine loved ones, since the 10-person limit includes the funeral staff (and clergy if they are present).
“And it’s not 10 come in, 10 leave,” said Karen Feeley, of Strano & Feeley Funeral Home in Newark, Del. It has to be the same crowd throughout the service.
Both businesses are taking part in a growing trend to give families some comfort despite the gathering limits. The drive-thru viewings work like this: Family is positioned next to the casket as friends and relatives drive by to pay respects. They can roll down the window to speak to the grieving family, and a staff member can take down the driver’s information to put it in the guest book (to limit contact with that surface and avoid spreading the coronavirus.)
It’s not like the old days, with gimmicky funeral homes marketing their drive-up windows, stressing the convenience of saying a quick goodbye on the way to work, or presenting an easier option for disabled visitors. One home in Compton, California, that had a drive-up option was useful in the 1980s, when there was a spate of gang-related cemetery shootings, according to the Los Angeles Times.
What’s different about drive-thru viewings in the pandemic is that funeral homes with no prior option are offering it now, and making temporary changes to perform these services.
“With all these restrictions on gatherings, that has really disrupted these mechanisms that are essential to the grieving process,” Feeley said. “...You can pick up the phone and make a phone call, but that human connection was missing.”
Strano & Feeley held its first drive-thru viewing last week. Staff set up a tent in the courtyard, which is surrounded by a circular driveway. The indoor furniture, even the rugs, were brought outside to make it comfortable for the family. Then the visitors drove by. The process was spelled out in the obituary for the deceased, a 73-year-old woman who died from the virus.
Strano & Feeley is making changes to other parts of the business too - selection of caskets, urns and memorial cards is now done by phone and email. When families are coming to sign paperwork, staff are meeting them outside wearing PPE.
At Herron Funeral Homes, which he runs with his sister Paula, the Bethlehem location has double doors that are opened in the front. The family will stay with the casket there, inside the front door of the home, as well-wishers drive by.
“We’ve had families who were at another come to us when they wouldn’t do it,” Herron said. “This is probably the only option if more than 10 people want to see someone.
For drive-thru viewings the home has placed photo boards and even a TV with a video tribute outside under an overhang.
Herron sees this practice continuing for some time too. Even if guidelines are revised to increase the limit of people at a gathering, “you have some viewings where 350 people show up, if they were well-known in the community,” he added.
“Think about it, I have four sons, two in the business, three nephews, four sisters, one has a husband. My parents are both deceased...at my age, 56, realistically my parents could be living.” Plus close friends. In other words, the number of people can quickly exceed 10, he said.
Not every home is offering drive-thru viewings right now. It presents logistical challenges during a time when the virus is hitting communities, especially the elderly, hard - and the “last responders” compete for PPE with state and federal governments and other agencies.
Plus, there is the added circumstance of the virus on grieving families.
“Unless you lost somebody in this time period, I don’t think people are aware of how difficult it [a funeral] is on someone you might know casually, now that everything is changed,” Feeley said. “You can’t offer a handshake or a hug."
But the drive-thru does the best with the current circumstances, the owners who spoke to NBC10 said.
“Everything’s different right now in our whole society, Feeley said. “People are used to things being different...but we just make sure this maintains that dignity and respectful setting. I think we’ve accomplished that and people still have that opportunity to express themselves in person.”