Has the Pandemic Changed Funerals Forever?

Q. The pandemic has caused me to refocus my energy on planning for my future and for my family when I’m gone. I have seen people I know die of COVID and their families stressed about their funerals during a time of grief.

I don’t want that to ever happen to my family, so I decided to preplan and prepay for my own funeral and for my spouse’s, so my children are not overwhelmed when the time comes. It seems the pandemic has changed a lot about funerals. Are some of these changes here to stay? Also, if I prepay for my funeral and my husbands, will it affect Medicaid eligibility in the future? Thanks for your help!

A. The pandemic has forced so many changes in the ways families grieve that the future of the funeral industry could be changed forever, experts say. Many traditions associated with mourning and burying the dead have been altered indefinitely.

How Funeral Arrangements Changed During the Pandemic

Some changes to traditional practices occurred during the COVID pandemic. Families were forced to take precautions including limiting attendance, wearing masks, and social distancing when planning and holding funeral services and visitations to prevent the spread among those in attendance, including those who may not have symptoms.

There was more of a focus on virtual or phone meetings instead of in-person meetings with funeral home staff, cemetery staff, clergy or officiants, and others to plan funeral arrangements. Traditional practices were preserved when it was possible to safely do so, but many traditional practices have had to be modified, or replaced withnew practices, as a result of the pandemic.

Virtual funeral services, visitations, and memorial tributes have been held using online video streaming or recorded video. Online guestbooks and memory books have become more prevalent during the pandemic — allowing families to invite people to share stories, notes of condolence, and photos.

If services were held outside, the number of attendees have been limited to a small number of immediate family and close friends. Other ways for family and friends to participate, such as by phone or online (live or recorded), were often made available.

Home Funerals are Becoming the Norm

More than 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 nationwide. The pandemic has created unintended opportunities for home funerals, similar to vigils and wakes, as other types of services have been disrupted and more people are dying at home.

While there are no statistics about the number of home funerals in America, calls to the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA) have grown over the last few years and escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Home funerals are legal in all 50 states. This trend could be changing the way people have funerals, according to a recent Next Avenue article.

In one example, a home funeral was not on Kate Merriwether’s radar when her 84-year-old mother, Sherry Lynch, passed away in hospice care. Merriwether had planned a private cremation ceremony with a few relatives and a large memorial service for extended family and friends a few months later. But when the pandemic happened, the crematory near her home stopped allowing families to be involved, and the memorial service was put on hold indefinitely.

A home funeral was suggested instead. Merriwether liked the idea, and her house was large enough to accommodate her mother in a biodegradable casket and a few family friends. The funeral home brought her mother to her house and gave her guidance on how to treat and manage the body.

Merriwether covered her mother’s face in a sheer cloth shroud so you could still see her lying there. She placed lit candles around the casket in a dark room, which gave it a “tomblike” ambience. As her mother was a liturgical artist, she covered the casket with images of her artwork.

Merriwether also used Zoom to stream the ceremony to those who could not attend in person. “We put the computer on a Lazy Susan chair so it could spin around the room to focus on the person talking.”

During the evening ceremony, Merriwether did most of the talking about her mother’s life and then took part in rituals with those present. They sang and ended the ceremony, laying hands on her mother and observing a few minutes of silence.

Merriwether and her family found the ceremony meaningful. She was particularly moved by the experience of sitting with her deceased mother. “It was similar to sitting with a newborn — it was very still, and there’s a majesty that’s beyond you. I fell more in love with my mother as a person during that day than in the last 4 years of dementia care, which had many intimate times. That final moment was more healing than therapy,” she says.

Why People Choose Home Funerals

Those who choose to have home funerals usually get cremated or have what are known as green burials (no chemicals used to preserve the body; everything going into the ground is biodegradable. 

With more people dying at home and traditional rites being curtailed, a home funeral allows some families to grieve together in familiar surroundings. Home funerals can be creative, reflecting the personality and values of the deceased or the family and its needs. Read more about home funerals in this recent Next Avenue article.

Funerals Using Technology

The global coronavirus pandemic has forced people to think more about death, while simultaneously upending the ways in which we are used to experiencing grief and loss. Zoom funerals, delayed burials, and virtual goodbyes have replaced hugs, wakes, and held hands. The only option is to grieve online.

To stay afloat, the pandemic has also pushed funeral homes into adopting technology perhaps sooner than planned. In addition to the popular FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Meet for virtual meetings, some companies have designed apps to help consumers plan funerals, store legal documents, and share messages.

“We have already more families wanting to do funeral arrangements online. Now we’re creating tools to make it easier for them to do that from a smartphone or computer. From talking to colleagues, I think this will fundamentally shift how we engage with families in the future,” says Manuel Guerra, a funeral director in Houston.

During the pandemic, several state governors have waived requirements for physical signatures on legal documents, allowing digital signatures instead. It is too early to know if these temporary changes in the wall will become permanent in the future.

Technology Will Never be the Same as Grieving in Person

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t create online mourning and grief. Facebook groups already connect mothers grieving young children to each other, and social-media profiles often become memorials. In tight-knit online communities, people have spent years learning to mourn the loss of close friends they never met.

Live-streaming, too, is already a part of how people grieve. Well before coronavirus sent billions of people into lockdown, there were reasons not everybody could make it to a funeral. In some faiths, such as Judaism and the Islamic faith, burial is supposed to happen shortly after death; even without that constraint, travel limitations have long prevented some people from attending memorials to their loved ones.

Using technology can be daunting for some older people and not personal enough. Experts in the funeral industry don’t think technology will replace the desire families have to meet and comfort each other in person. They believe that most families are very thankful for our ability to find ways to communicate when we can’t be together, but that they can’t wait until they can hug each other again.

Has the Pandemic Changed Funerals Forever?

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, hosting gatherings now could still be dangerous to those who would want to participate. Family and friends are finding alternate ways to connect, support each other, and grieve after their loss. Will new funeral practices such as funerals at home or using technology continue to be the norm in the future?  We don’t know, but you are wise to want to plan for the funeral you desire now, or to alert your family to your desires, so your family has peace of mind that they are proceeding exactly as you would have wanted them to when your time comes.

Do Prepaid Funerals Affect Medicaid Eligibility?

A prepaid funeral contract is a legal agreement that allows a person to pay now for funeral services that will be needed sometime in the future. This contract may include the funeral or memorial service and other related services. A prepaid funeral contract may be revocable or irrevocable. Irrevocable means the contract cannot be canceled. Generally only a properly-established irrevocable funeral contract is an exempt asset for Medicaid purposes.

Medicaid has rules that allow you to set aside money for your own funeral, burial, or cremation without having that money “count” as part of your assets when Medicaid determines your eligibility for long-term care coverage. Qualified funding vehicles, such as funeral insurance policies and trust accounts are allowed, generally provided they are irrevocable and non-refundable, and cannot ever be used for purposes other than funeral expenses. When the proper funding vehicles are used to prepay a funeral, the value of the prearranged funeral contract and the funding vehicle are excluded as a countable resource in determining SSI & Medicaid eligibility. You can read more about this topic in our Prepaid Funeral FAQs.

Make Your Burial Desires Known Ahead of Time

What if you want to have a funeral at home or online? How would your loved ones know what you desire if you haven’t indicated your wishes in your Advance Medical Directive?

Our proprietary 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive® enables you to set forth your preferences with regard to organ donation, funeral arrangements, and disposition of remains. The document also accomplishes several essential things. In your 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive®, you can appoint an agent and give that person the power to consent to medical and health care decisions on your behalf. This person can decide whether to withhold or withdraw a specific medical treatment or course of treatment when you are incapable of making or communicating an informed decision yourself. Our 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive® also contains a proprietary Long-Term Care Directive® that allows you to address numerous issues that arise if and when long-term care is needed and you’re unable to communicate your wishes. You can also indicate your wishes concerning the use of artificial or extraordinary measures to prolong your life in the event of a terminal illness or injury.

If you have not done Incapacity Planning (including our 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive® and Financial Power of Attorney), Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please contact us to schedule your appointment for our initial consultation:

Estate Planning Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Estate Planning Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Estate Planning Rockville: 301-519-8041
Estate Planning DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.