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Preparing Your Funeral Home for a Pandemic

Funeral directors will play a very important role in the event of a mass-fatality event, like a pandemic flu, particularly as large number of people will be grieving the deaths of their loved ones. Funeral directors will be counted on to provide the same high level of care and compassion for families during such a challenging time as they do today.

Here are some things you will need to consider as your funeral home plans to handle any pandemic.

Work Force:

  • Expect to double or even triple the number of calls your funeral home will receive over a 10- to 12-month period. Most likely they will come in three surges, each lasting about six to eight weeks: one at the beginning of the outbreak, another about four weeks after the end of the first surge and a third about four weeks after the end of the second surge. 
  • Plan for additional staffing during a pandemic situation (tasks easily delegated to retired funeral directors in the area, mortuary school students and, finally, to volunteers from church or civic groups).

Dispositions:

  • Crematoriums and cemeteries must look at surge capacity within their facilities.
    Cremations, which have fewer resource requirements than burials, may be a more expedient and efficient way of managing large numbers of remains.
  • If the body is not to be cremated, plans to expedite the embalming process should be in place.
  • Remains may need to be stored temporarily before embalming, after embalming or for the duration of the pandemic wave (four to six weeks), so funeral directors should work with local medical examiners/ coroners and public health officials to address such a situation, which may include refrigeration, temporary interment or storage in vaults.

Death Certificates:

  • In a pandemic, there could be as many unattended deaths as attended deaths. The former will require that the remains be processed by the medical examiner or coroner. In a surge situation with a reduced workforce and doctors otherwise occupied, it is expected that death certificates will be batch processed on a daily or weekly basis. The latter will be processed normally.
  • Plan in advance for this situation and the potential delay in receiving remains or obtaining a death certificate.

Infection:

  • Take special precautions to protect yourself and your employees from infection. All staff vaccinations should be up to date.
  • Making arrangements for visitations, memorial services and gravesite services may be a concern because of possibility of contagion. Consult with your local or state public health officials to determine if such gatherings would be permissible. If not, you should plan now how to conduct all of these activities in a restricted environment.

Supplies:

  • Stock at least six months of supplies to handle the first wave of a pandemic.
  • Families with multiple deaths are unlikely to be able to afford multiple higher-end products or arrangements.
  • Your funeral home could quickly run out of lower-cost items, so be prepared to offer alternatives or plan to have these items in stock.
  • Contact suppliers and develop a plan for timely delivery in the event of a pandemic.

Transportation:

  • Transporting bodies from place of death or morgue to the funeral home and then to the place of burial may become an issue. Transporting remains from the place of death to their hometown may also be difficult, especially if air service is restricted.
  • Work with your state and local emergency response and public health officials to plan for these eventualities, especially in a surge environment.

Religious and Ethnic Groups:

  • Reach out now to religious and ethnic leaders in your community and involve them in planning for funeral management, bereavement counseling and communication. This is especially important in communities where large numbers of people do not speak English and where traditional funeral and burial rituals and ceremony may have to be curtailed.

Preneed Contracts:

  • A funeral home may not be able to fulfill the terms and conditions of a preneed contract due to the unavailability of specific merchandise or other conditions.
  • Consult with the state attorney general or local city/ county attorney to provide some sort of legal immunity against a lawsuit that might be filed for noncompliance due to the pandemic.

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