Funeral homes adjust to these times

WITH GATHERINGS IN Vermont currently restricted to 10 or fewer people, county funeral directors are adjusting the way they coordinate end-of-life services. Some, like Sanderson in Middlebury and Brown McClay in Bristol and Vergennes, expect to see more cancelations and postponements, especially now that travel restrictions will make attendance difficult for out-of-state family members. Independent photo/Christopher Ross
We’ve been recording services for two or three years now, and putting them on our website, but we haven’t tried to broadcast them live until now. — Funeral Director Lee Payne

ADDISON COUNTY — End-of-life celebrations are often an occasion for large gatherings, but during the coronavirus pandemic local funeral homes are having to adjust their practices and look for new ways to continue providing the services their clients need.

On March 21 Gov. Phil Scott limited gatherings in Vermont to 10 people or fewer. Though funeral services are currently considered “essential” by the state, they must also adhere to the restrictions.

“We’re following state guidelines right now,” said Walter Ducharme, funeral director at Sanderson Funeral Services in Middlebury. “It went from gatherings of 50, to gatherings of 10, to immediate family.”

Immediate family, Ducharme added, does not include aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews or cousins.

For now, Sanderson is also asking that a maximum of two family members visit to make in-person arrangements. Ducharme and his colleagues are also trying to conduct more conversations by phone and email.

“Most people have been respectful of the new challenges funeral homes are facing,” he said.

But like essential workers in the medical field, Ducharme and his colleagues are facing a shortage of personal protective equipment, which they now need any time they visit a hospital, nursing home or hospice facility.

The Vermont Funeral Directors Association has been working to secure and distribute to its members items like N-95 masks and medical gowns. Such equipment helps protect not only funeral directors but also the institutions they’re visiting.

“We don’t know if we’ve come into contact with anyone who has coronavirus, but we’re treating everyone as if they’ve been infected,” Ducharme said.

As of Tuesday, Addison County had 23 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Statewide 293 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and at least 13 people have died from it.

Sanderson’s Middlebury location assists about 150 families with end-of-life services each year, though that number can vary widely from year to year.

So far Ducharme hasn’t had too many service postponements, but he expects to start seeing more as out-of-state family members are prevented from traveling to Vermont to attend ceremonies.

On Monday Gov. Scott ordered that residents and non-residents traveling into Vermont “for anything other than an essential purpose” must immediately self-quarantine for 14 days.

Even if funeral and memorial services are counted an essential for now, residents of other states are having to contend with their own restrictions.

Lee Payne is the funeral director at Brown McClay Funeral Homes in Bristol and Vergennes.

“One family canceled a service because their extended family is in Florida, which is on lockdown, so they can’t come,” Payne said.

Brown McClay assists about 120 Bristol- and Vergennes-area families with end-of-life services every year.

Payne is experimenting with live-streaming those services, using the Zoom app, but his information technology consultant has advised him that he will need an extra piece of equipment before he can get it up and running.

“We’ve been recording services for two or three years now, and putting them on our website, but we haven’t tried to broadcast them live until now,” he said.

Payne expects this will be the new norm for a while.

“I don’t think this will end any time soon, not until fall, at least.”

Some of Brown McClay’s clients are choosing to postpone services if they can, he added. 

But overall, “everybody is trying to be accommodating. They understand. They don’t think they’re getting unfair treatment or anything.”

On March 23 the Vermont Department of Health issued COVID-19 guidelines to the state’s nursing homes, long-term care facilities and hospice facilities, based on recommendations from the Vermont Funeral Directors Association.

Many of those guidelines are aimed at reducing or shortening in-person contact, as well as minimizing potential exposure among patients, facility staff and funeral home staff.

“The state is on top of it,” Ducharme said. “The feds are on it, too. Keeping calm is the key thing. Don’t panic.”

Reach Christopher Ross at

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Addison County Independent