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Funeral Homes Impacted By COVID Deaths

David Dengler, director of the Larson-Timko Funeral Home in Fredonia, is pictured Friday afternoon. Dengler said he has seen an increase in business within the past month and a half, some involving those who had COVID. P-J photo by Jo Ward

One served in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s before returning home and becoming a carpenter.

Another worked on a farm in the summer months during her youth before helping others in public sector jobs.

And yet another harbored a lifelong desire to become an “adequate golfer” — a journey never quite attained — while also teaching at a local school and later becoming principal.

All lived fulfilling, well-documented lives outlined on the obituary pages of the OBSERVER and The Post-Journal. Those life summaries have recently taken up more space, and area funeral directors too say they are handling more services — especially in the last couple of months while COVID numbers in Chautauqua County have surged.

Not all recent deaths involve the coronavirus; however, a little more than a third of the reported virus-related deaths to date locally have come from nursing homes and adult care facilities, though the number is likely higher due to the method in which fatalities are counted by the New York State Health Department.

The majority of deaths involve those between the ages of 70 and 79 and 80 and 89.

The recent spike, impacting families stricken by grief over not being able to see loved ones in nursing facilities, appear to be impacting local funeral directors who have not only reported an increase in business but have turned to technology to ensure families and friends from afar can be together at least one final time following a death.

David Dengler, director of the Larson-Timko Funeral Home in Fredonia and Spitzer Funeral Home in Sherman, noticed an increase in deaths in the past month and a half. He said not all had COVID, but compared to the early days of the pandemic the difference now is noticeable.

“Since the middle of December there’s been an uptick in the number of deaths. It’s really been up,” Dengler said. “I want to note not all were COVID in nature, but at the same time, up until December, I didn’t really handle too many COVID deaths. Since last March I did maybe one or two.”

Even outside the funeral business, Dengler said he hadn’t known too many people who even had the coronavirus. That has since changed as COVID numbers have skyrocketed locally with more than 6,000 confirmed cases in the county.

The pandemic has certainly changed how funeral services are conducted.

Masks must be worn at all times; the number of people allowed inside during viewings are limited; and services largely are scaled back to close relatives.

“People are still gathering at funeral homes, but calling hours are limited and there’s a cap on the number of people,” said Dengler, noting the difficulties travel restrictions also have placed on families being able to attend services for loved ones.

Equally gut-wrenching is what COVID has done to families with relatives in nursing and adult care facilities.“For the most part these people have been isolated and sometimes they die alone,” Dengler said. “Of course there are staff there, but for family members it’s hard for people then to have these types of funerals.”

Gary Kindberg, president of the Lind Funeral Home in Jamestown, said services have become much more intimate for families due to limitations brought on by the virus.

“I’ve said it for a while now people are starting to really appreciate these small services,” Kindberg said. “With families, it’s just with their brother, their sister, their father in there. They’re not having to host friends or neighbors. It’s very intimate.”

Like others, Lind’s didn’t handle many COVID-related deaths early on in the spring when confirmed cases were minimal in the Jamestown area.

That has now changed since the holidays. According to county Health Department data, there have been 1,554 confirmed cases of the virus in the Jamestown zip code, which represents 25% of all cases countywide to date. Twenty-seven new cases were reported Friday.

“We’ve had a lot of COVID deaths,” Kindberg said of the numbers in the south county. “It was somewhat isolated in the beginning, but eventually it worked its way down here. It seemed like for the longest time, you may have known someone who knew someone that had COVID-19. Now everyone knows someone.”

While business has been steady as of recent for the Jamestown funeral home, it’s not necessarily out of the ordinary. Kindberg said there typically is an increase in the number of people who pass away — for one reason or another — during the winter, but admitted things are still “unpredictably cyclical.”

In Dunkirk, Rick Mackowiak of the R. Mackowiak Funeral Home, said he understands the difficulties families are facing when trying to deal with the death of a loved one during a pandemic. Even with restrictions in place limiting the number of people permitted at funerals, he said some are hesitant to attend in fear of potentially contracting the virus.

“It’s definitely been hard for these families,” he said.

As far as an increase in services, Mackowiak said numbers typically go up from November through March.

TURNING TO TECHNOLOGY

Kindberg said Lind’s had been looking into streaming funeral services online “for a number of years.” When COVID struck, the conversation hit a new gear.

“Last spring it pushed us into the deep end of doing it,” Kindberg said. “You have people who can’t travel or want to stay at home. They don’t want to have to drive all this way only to be here for one day. Live-streaming really has been a wonderful tool to include many people.”

Just the other day during a funeral service, viewers came from all parts of the globe including Jamaica, California and Michigan. “For as crazy a time we’re in with these new ways of doing things, this technology has been nice.”

Dengler, too, has begun to stream funeral services live with early success. “We live-streamed a service at a church last week, with some family members that can’t get there, and it worked out very well,” he said.

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