The life of a funeral director during COVID-19

HOPEFUL SUGGESTION: Scott Groce, funeral director at Groce Funeral Home & Cremation Service, prefers that clients wear masks while attending services at his facility. “But we’re not going to make you do it,” he says. “We’re hopeful the suggestion will help.” Photo by Thomas Calder

These days, Scott Groce advises his staff to keep their hands in their pockets. It helps remind everyone that handshakes are no longer the right way to greet grieving guests at Groce Funeral Home & Cremation Service. The transition hasn’t been easy.

“By nature, we are trained to be caring and compassionate,” the funeral director explains. “Not only in words but also in demeanor and in action. One of the greatest compliments that we can get from a family is to have somebody actually hug us when we’re finished meeting with them. … That’s something we’re not able to do right now.”

Face coverings create new challenges, as well. Condolences are not as easily conveyed with a mask on, Groce notes. Gauging a client’s response to service proposals is also trickier when you can’t read an individual’s facial expression.

Meanwhile, several elderly clients with hearing issues have had difficulty understanding Groce and other masked colleagues. “A lot of the older folks rely on watching someone’s mouth,” he explains. “It’s a challenging situation because we’re trying to keep them safe by wearing these masks, but then they can’t hear anything we’re saying without us really yelling at them.”

The pandemic has also altered how services are conducted. While most families have delayed memorials amid current restrictions, several have opted for smaller, private burials. In such instances, many of these services have been livestreamed. “That’s helped bring in the extended family and also the community,” Groce says, adding that the virtual option offers closure to those unable to attend.

Other clients have used the stay home, stay safe mandate as an opportunity to forgo standard conventions. “It’s kind of the norm of society to have visitations, when honestly some families don’t feel comfortable with them,” Groce says. “But people think there is an expectation that this is what folks want them to do and what they’re supposed to do.”

No matter a client’s preference, Groce and his staff continue to work with grieving families from a safe social distance. But as with all things COVID-related, this too has created unique challenges.

“If someone comes at you, and they’ve got their hand out saying, ‘I really appreciate what you did for our family,’ you almost can’t look at them and say, ‘I can’t shake your hand,’” Groce reveals. “And there have been times where people have insisted on a handshake and you do it. And then you immediately go wash your hands. That’s the best we can do right now.”

This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at news@mountainx.com.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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