PITTSFIELD — Rob Dwyer has heard all the horror stories from his father and grandfather of how previous pandemics affected the funeral service industry.

He thought something similar never would occur.

Then 2020 came and COVID-19 arrived.

"It's unbelievable that it's happening again," said Dwyer, director of Dwyer-Wellington Funeral Home, a fifth-generation family business that opened in 1904.

Dwyer is one of several owners of Berkshire funeral homes dealing with the aftereffects of the coronavirus pandemic, caused by a virus that, as of Thursday, had claimed the lives of 246 Berkshire residents and almost 493,000 Americans in less than a year.

Funeral homes in other areas of the country that have been hit hard by COVID-19 have had difficulty keeping up with the additional number of deaths. According to Kaiser Health News, a funeral director in Aberdeen, S.D., in December was putting in 12- to 15-hour days to keep up with that month's surge of COVID-19 deaths in a municipality that has only 26,000 residents.

The Berkshires hasn't suffered as many deaths from COVID-19 as many other areas of the country, but the local death toll was 180 in mid-January, according to figures compiled by The Berkshire Eagle.

Edward "Ned" Roche, the owner of Roche Funeral Home in Lenox, said his business experienced a surge in funeral arrangements for COVID-19 victims after the holidays.

"After the New Year's spreader events. it was very busy," Roche said. "It's definitely quieted down a bit."

The sheer volume of deaths amid the pandemic has made end-of-life services different, according to the National Funeral Directors Association's 2020 Cremation and Burial Report, which refers to the pandemic as "unprecedented and unpredictable."

Cremation has become even more of an end-of-life preference. Nationally in 2015, the cremation rate passed the burial rate for the first time. Last year's projected burial rate of 37.5 percent was a 7.7 percent decrease from 2015, while the projected cremation rate of 56 percent represented an 8.1 percent increase from five years earlier.

More families than usual have been planning funerals, but 50 percent of association-member funeral homes have reported families postponing a memorial service because of COVID-19, with plans to hold them under the direction of a funeral director at a later date. The reasons for those delays include "safer-at-home" orders, social distancing measures and restriction on gatherings, according to the association. 

"We've been extremely busy, but we've had no problem keeping up," said Dwyer, who operates two funeral homes in Pittsfield and one in Dalton. "A lot of the reason that we're able to keep up is that people are putting off services until they can get together with their friends and family. If everybody was having their services right now, it would be a real issue."

So, Berkshire funeral home owners are bracing for what occurs after the pandemic is over,  because that backlog of postponed services, which has been piling up for almost a year, will take time to fill.

"I would say the biggest challenge is just the volume of services, and it's not just us," Dwyer said. "A lot of people are putting off liturgies and church services. So, it's going to be a scheduling thing."

The hard part is that no one knows how or when the pandemic is going to end, or when it will be considered safe enough to resume large gatherings.

"Is there ever going to be a day when one day we're bad and one day we're clear, or is it just going to be a gradual thing that we come out of so we can start doing them slowly?" Dwyer said. "We'll just have to wait and see."

John Bresnahan, director of Devanny-Condron Funeral Home in Pittsfield, said the pandemic has restricted a lot of normal activities that families have been able to hold to honor their loved ones.

"So, you have less visiting hours, you might have less formal services at a church or a synagogue," he said. "Then the commonwealth kept rolling out from the governor's office and the Department of Public Health how many people you could have in a building, how many people you could have in a cemetery, so, people have been kind of pushing it back, delaying. They've been saying, 'You know what we'll take care of, what we can deal with right now, be that burial or cremation, and we're planning to have a celebration once the restrictions are lifted.

"The amount of deaths has increased, but the number of services that have accompanied them has probably not occurred," he said.

Creative services

The families that are holding remembrance ceremonies are doing them in creative ways, Bresnahan said. He said the recently deceased matriarch of one family that always held Independence Day celebrations has scheduled a celebration of her life for July 4 this year.

Keeping up with the demand once the pandemic is over will be a "scheduling thing," Bresnahan said. "Whatever a family decides on, if that date is far in advance, we'll just have to accommodate the requests as they come."

"I think churches are going to suffer the same kind of thing as an ancillary to the funeral homes," Bresnahan said, referring to holding the backed-up remembrance services. "Most churches have only one clergy person. So, that could be difficult."

The previous pandemic to devastate the U.S. occurred in 1918, so, Bresnahan said, there really is no modern-day precedent to the havoc that COVID has created.

"Back in the day, the only thing you could probably talk about that became a health crisis in any way shape or form is when AIDS became a source in the 1980s and 1990s, where you had untimely deaths at younger ages," he said. "We haven't had anything that would remotely resemble what this is. "

Roche remembers his father telling him about a public health emergency that occurred in Lee during the 1920s.

"The septic sore throat in Lee ... there were 60 deaths in a short period of time," Roche said. Unlike the current pandemic, they were able to stop that one at the source.

"They narrowed it down to one cow," Roche said.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-2755.