A year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, over half a million Americans have died from the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nearly 300,000 “excess deaths,” or those deaths beyond what was expected, between January and October of 2020. Roughly two-thirds of those deaths are attributed to the coronavirus.
As the death rates rose, those in the funeral industry have been working to balance CDC safety guidelines and an increase in business while dealing with supply shortages and labor issues.
Heather Howell, owner of Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home Inc., said her business recorded a 15% increase in funerals arranged in 2020 compared with the previous year.
“I hate to say it, but there was more business because people passed away from COVID,” Howell said, declining to disclose annual revenue. “Toward the end of the year, it was noticeable. As the numbers increased and the deaths increased – it was noticeable.”
Locally, 422 Greene County residents died due to COVID-19, as of March 24, according to the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. Statewide, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has recorded 8,434 COVID-19 deaths.
While Howell doesn’t attribute the business increase solely to COVID-19, she knows it played a big part. While Gorman-Scharpf typically grows each year, the death rate doesn’t usually fluctuate enough to be a big factor.
On March 24, the Health Department announced a full week without a COVID-19 death in the county for the first time in 35 weeks.
“I think we’ve handled it, but we are seeing a decline in COVID cases and business numbers are getting somewhat back to normal. I think that’s good because the system was going to get overwhelmed,” Howell said. “It was getting a little crazy, and it’s good they’re becoming normal – if that word is possible to say.”
On another side of the industry, Jerry Eason, owner of Missouri Casket Co. Inc. in Seymour, said his company is struggling to keep up with the demand for caskets.
Eason’s company sells wood and metal caskets and urns to distributors and funeral homes in 34 states, primarily in the Midwest and southeast.
“We’re overcome with orders – about busier than we’ve ever been. And we’re having a major hard time getting people to come to work,” Eason said.
Labor shortages were compounded with issues in receiving materials to build the caskets. At one point, Eason said the company ran completely out of the handle hardware used to carry the caskets. No caskets left the shop for two weeks.
Cloth used inside the caskets, which Eason would normally order by 48 rolls at a time, was cut back to 24 rolls – then 12, then nothing – as supplies ran out. Eason said some materials ran into shipping delays during the pandemic if they came from overseas, while other manufacturers struggled with labor.
While supply levels are returning to normal, Eason is still struggling with his own lack of labor to meet the increased demand. As a result, he has missed out on approximately 400 casket sales so far this year.
“If I were to have made those sales, we’d probably be up about 15% over the year. But those sales are gone, and gone forever. They went somewhere else,” Eason said. “We used to be able to supply orders every two weeks, and now we’re four weeks to two months, and that’s just too long. If someone passes away, they don’t wait a month to bury them.”
Howell said Gorman-Scharpf has contended with a shortage of available urns, flag boxes and other items over the last four months but hasn’t had issues with casket shortages.
The pandemic also has introduced a new element to the local funeral business. As part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be offering financial assistance for funeral costs of deaths related to COVID-19 beginning in early April.
Howell said she has never experienced FEMA reimbursement for funeral expenses in this area but has heard of it occurring following natural disasters. While the funeral home will assist where possible, Howell said the primary work to receive reimbursements will fall to the family of the deceased.
Assistance is limited to a maximum of $9,000 per funeral and an official death certificate must attribute the death to COVID-19. Funeral expense documents must be supplied, as well.
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