The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Funeral homes limiting mourners as virus measure


March 25, 2020

The coronavirus has its grip clenched on every aspect of life — and death.

An important and necessary part of the human experience is what happens at the end of it, and funerals are a prime example of events where people gather in large groups, saying goodbye to their departed loved ones.

As of Tuesday, no New Mexico deaths had been reported due to COVID-19. But in these days of the virus, while large groups of people can still gather to mourn, they cannot do it in the same room.

“That is true. We are limited to no more than 10 in a room,” said Scott Reeves, funeral director for Portales’ Wheeler Mortuary. That was before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that groups should be limited to five or fewer.

“For instance, I have a full service (Tuesday) that will be recorded and posted on my website with just a few family members.”

“Right now we’re not allowed to have 10 or more in the building, and no more than 10 at a memorial service,” Randy Rodriguez, funeral director at Muffley Funeral Home in Clovis since 2007, said Monday afternoon. “So if there’s a visitation, we’re asking the families to mandate a group of people (at a time).”

Even at the gravesite, mourners have to be appropriately distanced, Rodriguez said.

Speaking for Clovis’ Steed-Todd Funeral Home on Monday was Bill Vallie, senior funeral director for Legacy Funeral Group, which owns Steed-Todd and 16 other funeral homes. Vallie has seen just about everything during his 46 years in the business. He had to deal with HIV concerns when that disease was more prevalent. He was involved in removal of the 59 slain in the Las Vegas shooting massacre of 2017.

And now, COVID-19.

“Trust me, we’re really thinking extremely creative,” Vallie said late Monday afternoon by telephone from Odessa, Texas. “We’re challenging our funeral directors.”

It has been an unexpected challenge. Potential contamination from an outbreak wasn’t something that funeral homes ever thought they had to prepare for.

“It was never anything that we addressed prior to this, no,” Reeves said.

Facebook Live and other forms of live-streaming are ways that funeral directors are helping families and friends stay involved. Something Legacy is utilizing is called Lanes of Love, where people who are not in the select group of mourners allowed at the gravesite can drive by and wave as a way of paying their respects.

As John Lennon said, strange days indeed.

“Heck, you saw it with the Spanish flu, H1N1, Ebola,” Rodriguez said. “Never did I think (COVID-19) would get to this point.”

“I went through this with the AIDS virus in the ’80s,” Vallie said.

That was a bit easier, Vallie noted, because AIDS is most commonly transmitted sexually and through bodily fluids. It wasn’t airborne.

COVID-19 is different because it can get airborne, and any contact with others — standing too close, shaking hands, touching door handles — could lead to infection.

But people still pass away. And their loved ones still want to grieve.

“What we’re trying to do now is keep everybody involved,” Vallie said, “but from a distance.”

Funeral homes are vital to societies, and were on Lujan Grisham’s list of essential businesses Monday when she issued a stay-at-home order for New Mexico.

The Clovis funeral homes already work in tandem, with Muffley collecting the deceased during odd months, Steed-Todd during even months, and that won’t change during the pandemic. It can’t.

“If the world stops and the economy shuts down, we are the last responders,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t close our doors.”


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