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At Berkshire funerals, virus regulations put a crimp on mourning rituals

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As Mike Kelly was putting together plans for a funeral at his Lee business recently, he was mindful of limits on the size of public gatherings to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

Initially, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against gatherings of more than 50 people. Then in mid-March, Gov. Charlie Baker set a maximum of 25 people allowed to congregate.

On March 23, as the outbreak began to quickly spread, that number shrunk anew.

"I've been meeting with a family that had people coming from out of the country and California," said Kelly, director of the family-run Kelly Funeral Home. "Then I got an email and had to tell them it was down to 10."

Families planning calling hours and funeral services throughout the Berkshires have been coping well with social distancing regulations, even at a time of personal loss, Kelly and other funeral directors have told The Eagle. Some have been forced to limit who may attend services, have mourners attend in shifts, or even mourn via webcast.

"People have been very understanding" said Rob Dwyer of Dwyer-Wellington Family Funeral Homes in Pittsfield and Dalton.

"The hardest part is to convey the message of a higher authority," said John Bresnahan, managing director at Devanny-Condron Funeral Home in Pittsfield, who is also second vice president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association.

"We encourage bereaved families to work with their funeral director to create meaningful services that fall within the governor's emergency order of limiting large, public gatherings," association President Clarence Lyons wrote.

Meaningful and safe, Bresnahan added: "Funeral homes do have a responsibility to minimize exposure to the coronavirus."

And that begins, the funeral directors noted, with being more vigilant on sanitizing the funeral parlors, maintaining small groups waiting to pay respects, and observing the maximum gathering rules inside for a funeral service or outside for a graveside remembrance.

"We served one family (at the funeral home) and did so in stages as it was a large family," Bresnahan said. "Unfortunately, not everyone got to be at the end of the service."

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The family decided to delay a burial service, he said, likely after the gathering restriction is lifted.

Ned Roche at Roche Funeral Home in Lenox has also found families cooperative and accommodating to limitations being put on traditional funerals. If it involves a graveside service, he says they must make difficult choices about who can attend, often only immediate family members.

"This [pandemic] shows you can't take things for granted," Roche said.

The limit on large gatherings has kept some loved ones from traveling any great distance, only to be left out of any in-person bereavement.

That's where the internet can help.

"We've been set up for some time with webcasting, so people can log in to a service here," Dwyer said. "When this is all said and done, we may see more people take advantage of this."

Recently, Dwyer decided to flip through the funeral home's records from the fall of 1918 — during he height of the Spanish influenza outbreak in Berkshire County. In Pittsfield alone, 351 people died from September through December of that year, according to the "Report of the Vital Statistics of Massachusetts for the Year 1918."

"We had page after page after page of people dying of influenza — nothing else," Dwyer said.

Worldwide, the deadly flu outbreak lasted from January 1918 to December 1920 killed between an estimated 17 million to 50 million people around the globe.

While the current outbreak is seen as unlikely to grow to a catastrophe of that magnitude, Dwyer and his staff will heed all mandated and suggested steps to ensure funeral services to contribute to spreading the new coronavirus.

"I don't want to go back to 1918," he said.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com.


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