Local funeral homes adjust, prepare amid pandemic

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The number of COVID-19 deaths in West Michigan is expected to jump over the next few weeks, and local funeral home operators say they’re ready.

New procedures are already in place for how to handle the bodies.

After someone dies, the virus lives on. That means if it’s not contained, it will continue to spread.

Matt Hollebeek, vice president of Heritage Life Story Funeral Homes, has spent most of his life in the funeral business. In a blink of an eye, everything has changed because of COVID-19.

“They’ve (people) lost a loved one, and I have to give them an elbow bump or I’m six feet away,” Hollebeek said. “It’s terribly impersonal, but we all recognize now, a couple of weeks in the importance of doing it.”

His normal attire, which is a suit and tie, is now accessorized.

“We have masks gown, shoe coverings. We have sanitizing spray and towels and things like that,” Hollebeek said. “Really the main thing that we’re concerned about would be to protect or cover the mouth for any air that may be expelled. And that can happen, as we are moving somebody.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says respiratory droplets spread the virus.

“So, we are going to put some sort of sanitizing spray on the person’s face,” explained Hollebeek. “We’ll just cover it with a towel. We’re also bringing some kind of plastic that we can wrap the person in a sheet and then also in the plastic.”

Only one vehicle and building are being used to transport and prepare the bodies. Every operation is being done to contain the virus.

Hollebeek has yet to deal with a confirmed coronavirus death. But each body is being treated as if the person tested positive.

“Because we don’t know, you don’t know, I don’t know, so we have to protect our health too,” he said.

Hollebeek had isolated himself from his wife and kids. They are now staying with his in-laws until the pandemic is over.

He is concerned for his own health but says he won’t stop working.

“That’s what we are called to do. This is not just a job for us. It’s a way of life,” he said.

He adds that at this time, cremations are not required. Funeral homes can still embalm bodies.

Funeral proceedings that are limited to 10 people or less, according to the CDC and National Funeral Directors Association.

Hollebeek says many families are opting for hosting memorials with more people later.