Kenneth Poe Funeral and Cremation Services has been in business for about six years. But its owner, Ken Poe -- he’ll ask that you please call him Ken -- has been in the industry for around 40 years. He sees the role of a funeral director as that of a caregiver.
"You typically think of caregivers as doctors and nurses," Poe said. "But we are the caregiver that steps in that helps the family walk through that time after the death has occurred, where we can guide them and help them make some good decisions that will help them deal with their grief."
Being there to help people in their time of need is what the job is all about, Ken says. It’s not uncommon to form a bound with the families he works with.
"We used to get hugs a lot of times after we were finished with a family," Poe said. "But we don’t get those now with COVID in the picture."
So many things have had to change because of the pandemic, Poe says. From little things like not being able to hug families to extra cleaning measures put in place for the safety of his staff.
"Everything from the way we handle the individuals that have passed away to the way we handle the families," he said. "As well as the way we handle churches and other facilities where we hold services. There have been changes in almost every aspect of what we do."
Long gone are the days of a large funeral service — or even a medium-sized one. He says funeral services have gone from public events to private ones with small crowds.
Online platforms like Zoom have been the answer to virtually include more people who can’t be there in person.
"We Zoom gravesite services or memorial services," Poe said. "We did one the other day where we had only 12 people present for the service, but we had about 30 people watching by Zoom."
People seem to be OK with having smaller funeral or memorial services and the virtual spaces make it a little easier. But, he says, what some miss are those large family gatherings that happen after a service is done. Not having that time and space to reminisce in person, to tell stories, and celebrate their loved one, is a difficult compromise to make.
"They really want to gather and this has been very painful for a number of those that are not able to do that," Poe said.
In those situations, he has encouraged families to look a year out to plan a celebration or commemorative event to give families closure.
"It ties it together, in a sense," Poe said, "as opposed to, 'Let’s wait until COVID is under control or wait six months when deep down we don’t know when the end is.' But we do know a year from now there very likely will be a vaccine and there will very likely be more comfort in the community with people getting together."
Poe balances his staff’s safety while comforting families who are learning to grieve in different ways. But having to deal with a widespread virus people have questions and fear around, is unfortunately something he's experienced before.
"We use universal precautions, we are extremely careful because we have dealt with infections for years," he said. "I mean we really got indoctrinated into this back when AIDS came on the scene."
While there are still many unknowns around COVID-19, Poe says there was a different level of fear when the AIDS epidemic broke out because of the time it took to discover effective treatment.
"To me, AIDS was just as scary, or maybe more scary," Poe said. "Honestly, we’ve saw more AIDS cases than we’ve seen COVID cases. Because in those early days, there was nothing they could do for AIDS patients. That developed over a period of time. We routinely had AIDS patients, almost one a week sometimes. COVID has been one a month. So it’s different."
But the fact that there’s still not a vaccine and the coronavirus continues to spread in the United States is concerning.
Just last month, a concerned group representing North Carolina funeral directors and morticians wrote Gov. Roy Cooper asking him to require health care providers to alert them when complications from COVID-19 was the cause of death. That would allow for extra precautions when transporting and preparing the body.
Poe says he doesn’t share that concern because both Atrium and Novant health systems do relay cause of death information. And to be safe, he says they treat every individual they come into contact with as if they had COVID. His staff uses PPE like a doctor or nurse would — wearing a mask, gloves, and a gown.
If the funeral home does know for certain that someone did die due to COVID complications, they make sure to isolate the body until certain procedures are done.
"We prepare the body regardless whether it has COVID or not," he said. "And it’s up to us to make sure we are protected. But once that preparation is done, we don’t think there is any real reason to fear for contamination or infection."
But for the sake of safety, Poe doesn’t encourage touching the person before they are laid to rest. The exception he says might be for family members. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be strange for someone to feel compelled to reach out one final time to say goodbye. Now if they do, Poe says, he would advise them to wear gloves.
Grief is a complicated emotion to navigate — pandemic or not. So Poe will continue to try to make accommodations for families as they feel their way through that grief. It’s a job he always approaches with grace, and for now, with social distance.
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