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Estacada area funeral directors discuss the changes that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to their industry

COURTESY PHOTO - With a statewide ban on gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many family members and friends who have lost a loved one during this time are participating in viewings and services through online video conferencing.

After they've lost a loved one, family members and friends typically come together for a funeral service or celebration of life. But with recent public health concerns, and a statewide ban on gatherings because COVID-19, online video conferencing has become an essential part of the mourning process.

Elizabeth Fournier, owner of Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, has facilitated viewings by setting up a laptop next to a casket, rather than having people in the chapel.

"They're in conference together on social media or Zoom, and it's been a really nice way to be in contact with one another," she said.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of life, and the way in which family members and friends mourn their lost loved ones is no exception.

"We're trying to uphold social distancing rules and make sure people still get served well. It's been a challenge. These are uncharted waters for every industry," said Rob Gaskill, owner of Estacada Funeral Chapel.

The differences are evident from the start of the funeral planning process. Typically, Gaskill and Fournier meet with most clients in-person to discuss arrangements, but this has changed in during the public health crisis.

Gaskill has limited in-person visits at the office to two people to allow for everyone's safety. Often, additional family members will join the funeral planning process via phone.

"It's been awfully quiet (at the office)," he said. "People are making funeral arrangements over the phone or through email. It's been very unusual."

The number of people at both Estacada Funeral and Cornerstone's chapels is also limited. Like Fournier, Gaskill is using technology to facilitate people being able to participate in funerals.

Though family members can partake in these memorial services virtually, both Gaskill and Fournier acknowledge that it's not the same as being in the same space with a community of people who knew and loved the deceased.

"The hardest part is that people can't have the services they need to provide the closure that they need to move on," Gaskill said.

Burial sites also come with additional limitations to facilitate the safety of families and cemetery staff during this time. While many families traditionally gather around the grave as the loved one's casket is lowered into the ground, this is often not possible because of the current health crisis.

To prevent potential spread of the virus, families are limited in the number of people they can bring to the cemetery and often must stay in their cars rather than gathering around the gravesite. At some cemeteries, they can gather around the gravesite after cemetery staff have finished lowering the casket into the ground.

"It's a hardship for families," Fournier said.

Those who are religious may face additional difficulties.

"When there's more ritual, like prayers or burial within 24 hours, that's tricky," Fournier said. "Some families have always done these traditions and to do it another way is horrible. . .There have been a lot of sad situations. It's been hard on families."

Some have been able to connect with their religious leaders using technology.

"We've had some calls and Zoom conferences with clergy," Fournier said. "The idea of having an online conference with clergy is really appealing to some people."

In many cases, clients plan to host a funeral or celebration of life when the ban on gatherings is lifted. In the meantime, Fournier has been working with families to determine creative ways to honor their lost loved ones during this pandemic, from all stepping outside their homes at the same time and yelling the individual's name to each playing the deceased's favorite song at a specific time.

"That way you know you're in unity," she said.

Though technology and unique ways of honoring loved ones who have passed away provide community members with some comfort, both Fournier and Gaskill acknowledged that this is a particularly difficult time to lose someone.

"I feel the worst for people who are trying to process death during all of this. Even if (their loved one) didn't die from COVID, they can't have that normal connection," Fournier said.

"The hardest part is I'm a hugger, and now I can't hug anyone," Gaskill added. "I want to console people and give them a hug, but I can't do that. It's all understood that this is what we have to do . . . It's an uncertain time, and all I can do is let them know I'm still here for them."

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