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New funeral rules making it ‘hard on families’

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Amended state public health emergency orders designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in New Mexico are changing the way families and friends say a final goodbye to their loved ones.

The updated PHEOs from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico Department of Health that went into effect Nov. 5 added funerals to the list of gatherings which fall under heavy restrictions for attendance. While funeral homes remain on the state’s list of “essential businesses,” the order amended the definition of “mass gatherings” to add funerals, to the list of “public gatherings … that brings together more than five individuals in a single room or connected space, confined outdoor space or an open outdoor space.”

That limitation is impacting how funeral homes can provide for the families they serve. And it’s affecting more than the funeral home businesses.

“It’s hard on families,” said Danielle Hammack, funeral director at Chapel of Hope Funeral Home in Hobbs.

When COVID-19 hit last spring, the limit on gatherings was initially set at five people, which was later amended to 10 individuals at a time, Hammock said.

Returning to the lower limit is making things difficult for both sides, she said.

“With the numbers going back and forth, it kind of yo-yo’s,” Hammack said. “Even though we’re trying to keep people safe, families are having a hard time adjusting.”

Hammack noted one family in particular who was planning for a funeral later this week, prior to the revised orders going into affect last Thursday. She was meeting with the family Tuesday morning to advise them of the imposed changes and see how they wanted to proceed.

After meeting with the family, Hammack said she’d presented them with several options, including having the visitation not at the funeral home but at the church where the funeral is planned, which has lighter restrictions on attendance. Despite trying to accommodate them, the family was still disappointed, she said.

The DOH differentiates between funeral homes and “houses of worship” in its directives. According to the most recent Public Health Order dated Nov. 5, “Houses of worship may hold religious services … but may not be used as a venue for non-religious events. Houses of worship may not exceed 40% of the maximum occupancy of any enclosed building, as determined by the relevant fire marshal or fire department.”

And Hammack wasn’t alone. Bettye Kirby, owner and manager at Ratliff Funeral Home in Lovington, said she’s been dealing with families who were disappointed at the DOH orders well before restrictions were tightened on the size of gatherings.

“I think it’s really sad,” Kirby said. “We already have these families who’ve been separated from their loved one in hospitals or in nursing homes. These people have gotten sad, they’ve gotten depressed, and they’ve died and now (the family) can’t even come to the funeral.

“I think it’s a disgrace,” she said. “It’s sad.”

Funeral directors around the area are having to get creative in how they’re planning funerals, visitations, prayer services and more, all part of the funeral process. Chapel of Hope, for example, has side doors which can be opened, allowing mourners to gather outside, adjacent to the chapel, where they can listen to the service via a public address system, Hammack said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Hammack said the funeral home even tried a “drive-through” approach to the visitation, where friends typically come to see the family, view the departed and pay their respects. That didn’t go over as well as they’d hoped, she said.

“We approached the family and said we can place (the deceased) very discreetly and people can drive by,” Hammack said. “They wouldn’t get out, they wouldn’t get to hug the family members, but they’d be able to see the person in the casket. That was not received very well.

“We’re trying to carry out our families wishes while still being respectful of the law we’re being asked to follow,” she said. “Other funeral homes do different things now, too. We’re not the only ones trying to be creative.”

Kirby, too, has made use of open spaces and sound systems at some churches to allow people to at least hear the services as they proceed. But it just isn’t the same, she said.

“That doesn’t really satisfy the family, because they want to be there, inside,” Kirby said. “This is the hardest time in a family’s life and then we’re making it harder, not allowing them to have a decent burial for that family member. It’s hard on families. It eats a lot of them alive.”

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