No hugs, no handshakes: For grieving families, coronavirus makes hard times harder

Photo by Tom Vanderwall / Vanderwall Funeral Home in Dayton, Tenn., has posted signs throughout the facility to remind visitors of social-distancing recommendations during the coronavirus outbreak.

Alfred "Buddy" May died March 15 at age 88. Hixson resident Brian Blaylock is a double cousin - related on his mother's and father's sides of the family - so he feels a special closeness. But little of Blaylock's grief will be shared with extended family and friends unless he makes an effort to seek out their solace.

May died of natural causes, according to his family, but because his death occurred during the rising threat of the coronavirus in the Chattanooga area, his end-of-life commemorations have been cut short. Rather than a public visitation, there will be a small gathering of the immediate family at the funeral home to remember the U.S. Navy veteran and Combustion Engineering retiree. Then he will be entombed at Hamilton Memorial Gardens.

"There's not even going to be a service," said Blaylock. "They're going to take him straight to the mausoleum and slide him in. That's it.

"I lived through the blizzard of '93 and [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11," Blaylock said, "but I've never seen anything like this. You can't even have a funeral. It's just wham, bam, thank you, ma'am."

He's not the only one feeling that sense of loss. Countless families are facing similar decisions for how to commemorate the life of a departed loved one while also adhering to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for coronavirus prevention behavior. Rather than hugs and handshakes when their need to be consoled is most acute, grieving families must adjust to social distancing and isolation, with formal gatherings limited to no more than 10. The loss of communal mourning is often deeply felt by the next of kin.

"The comfort and support that surrounds families [in shared grief] helps us move forward [after the death of a loved one]," said Jason Cox, managing partner of the South Crest Chapel of Lane Funeral Home and Crematory in Rossville. "The love and support that you get at the visitation actually helps start the grieving process. It puts things in motion."

Instead, families must now navigate a new way forward through these rituals of death.


Although there is already a trend toward shorter, more streamlined services, viewings lasting several hours are not uncommon at area funeral homes. Funerals may follow immediately or be scheduled the next day for the family to receive additional friends.

Coronavirus precautions are dramatically changing those practices. Obituaries tell the story: The funeral will be private. Services have been postponed. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

"It hurts me," said the Rev. Keith McLeod, senior pastor of Boynton Baptist Church in Ringgold, Georgia, who led a graveside service for a family earlier this week. Keeping his distance seems foreign for a man called to pastor a flock, he said, but he understands the need for the restrictions.

"I believe in health and safety, and I support our leaders in Washington and the task force, and I believe we have to learn to adapt to those changes," he said. "The bottom line, while this coronavirus is going on, is that you can't have more than 10 [together] and you have to stay 6 feet away from each other."

Funeral directors are grappling with the precautions, too. The benevolent care shown to survivors is as much a hallmark of the industry as the mortuary science that dictates the clinical care of the deceased.

"I shake hands with everybody. I'm a big hugger," said Tom Vanderwall of Vanderwall Funeral Home in Dayton, Tennessee. "It's a challenge for me to remember no handshakes, no hugs."

Still, they're not without options. They simply have to find new ways of serving families, whether it's holding a private viewing for a handful of family members or scheduling a memorial service weeks or months later.

"I don't see families being so insistent on doing something that they would put themselves and others at risk," Vanderwall said.

One option gaining favor is livestreaming services. Christopher James, external communications specialist for Service Corporation International, which owns Chattanooga Funeral Homes, said the company is "exploring technology alternatives, where available, to stream services online, which will aid in reducing the number of people at a service."

Cox said Lane Funeral Home is offering similar livestreaming, free of charge, to friends and family who can't attend a service due to crowd size restrictions.

"Most of the time, it's used for family that lives out of town or a service member overseas who can't get home," he said. Now, "we're doing whatever we can to make it easy for families to have the celebration of life they want, without an added financial burden."

McLeod said he's grateful for the option of livestreaming - his church is using the technology for Sunday services - but "texting and calling and FaceTime, that's not the same as being able to sit down with [families] and offer support."


Part of the challenge for funeral directors is the moving target of compliance.

On March 15, the CDC issued new guidance for mass gatherings recommending that for eight weeks, until May 10, all events consisting of 50 or more people be canceled or postponed. The next day, the White House released "The President's Coronavirus Guidelines for America - 15 Days To Slow the Spread." Those guidelines stated that people should "avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people" for the next 15 days, until March 31.

In a message to members, the National Funeral Directors Association noted, "It would appear this would impact funerals/viewings in that they would be limited - perhaps to immediate family only - for the next 15 days. After this 15-day period concludes, the restrictions would continue with the CDC's eight-week limitations on mass gatherings."

If cities or states are also restricting public gatherings, "these restrictions take precedence," the association said.

Chattanooga National Cemetery is following federal protocols during the coronavirus threat. Administrative officer William Sachse said several families have either postponed services or opted for "direct burial," which means the body was interred without a committal service or military honors and with no more than 10 family members present.

"We are offering to hold memorial services after the situation changes if the families want," Sachse said.


The CDC has issued handling instructions to funeral directors for the final disposition of a body if the person is known to have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The body may still be buried or cremated, according to the family's wishes.

Although there is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room with the body of someone who has died of COVID-19, according to the CDC, the agency advises that people "should consider not touching the body," since researchers are still learning how the virus spreads.

For funeral directors, the more immediate concern is the mandate to thwart the community spread of the virus. Those efforts range from handling initial arrangements by phone or Skype, rather than meeting personally with the family, and maintaining stringent cleaning practices when families do come to the funeral home.

Cox said Lane is staggering visitations so that only one family will be using the building at any one time. The pens used for writing in the condolence book are continually changed out and sanitized. The main doors to the building are propped open so that there's no need to touch the handles to enter or leave.

Vanderwall said he has stationed an assistant at the condolence book to record visitors' names as they enter. He has posted signs reminding visitors to refrain from hugs and handshakes "due to the current health concerns."

"We're just trying to protect ourselves, protect our own families and somehow try to meet the needs of a grieving family," he said.

Contact Lisa Denton at or 423-757-6281.