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Voices From the Crisis: Changing the way funerals are conducted

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Evan Smith sees funerals as the modern family reunion, the only opportunity to see different generations and cousins in one place, to grieve and celebrate a life lost.

Until the coronavirus hit.

It was a challenge in mid-March when funerals were limited to 50 attendees with 6 feet of distance between them. Some smaller churches in Delaware aren’t large enough to meet that requirement. And it’s gotten more difficult with the limit dropping to 10, a number that can barely accommodate the immediate families of some of the black, Latino, and veteran families that Smith serves from locations in Wilmington and Dover.

Evan and Laura Smith | Photo c/o Evans Funeral Home

“Things changed at the drop of a hat with coronavirus,” said Smith who started Evan W. Smith Funeral Services 10 years ago with his wife Laura.

He works with his father Kenny, who’s been in the business for more than 40 years.

“In less than a week, that rich tradition has been ripped away,” Smith said. “We’ve had to quickly reinvent how we keep that mission of coming together to mourn the loss of a loved one during a time when we’re promoting social distancing.”

So, Smith is now holding memorial services using Facebook Live.

“It can be deployed pretty quickly,” he said. “You can still have a traditional service. The only issue is that it’s very public, which makes some families uncomfortable. So, we’ve hired a tech company to broadcast from our website with a PIN number. We’re going to be up and running within a week. It’s always been available, but we weren’t using it because there was no need with my clients.”

Smith thinks he’s “in front of the curve. We’re amazed that we can do it so easily. If it catches on, maybe we’ll use bigger cameras, lighting, sound technicians. I think this pandemic will push it. And it could be something that sticks if people find it’s the only way to broadcast to a family member in California who can’t attend.”

Direct cremation was on the rise prior to COVID-19, but Smith and others in the industry expect it to increase sharply.

“With minority families, cremation is only an economic option,” he said. “They tend to want a traditional full-blown service. When they can’t have a public gathering, they’re not apt to spend for elaborate services and they won’t be purchasing caskets, memorial items – personalization is very popular – flowers, and the after-service meal.”

Smith, who manages about 200 funerals a year, said he’s not concerned cremation will become a trend and affect his business and those of other funeral homes. He’s concerned how long it’s going to take for the restrictions to be lifted. Once they are, he believes, his clients will go back to their normal purchase pattern.

“The next few days will really be telling given the updated restrictions. With the clients who are preplanning funerals, cremation is on the table,” he said.

By Peter Osborne


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