NEW BETHLEHEM – With COVID-19 tightening its grip on area counties, the obituary sections of the region’s newspapers are longer. The rising death toll means busy days and sleepless nights for area funeral directors. The pandemic has also brought about changes in their business models.

Susan Rupert, co-owner of Rupert Funeral Home and Cremation Service along Penn Street in New Bethlehem, said that the highly infectious nature of the coronavirus has brought about some major changes in the business.

“More than anything,” she said, “the pandemic has given everyone a push to start adopting and using technology more than in the past. Everybody used to say how useful it might be. Now we are being forced into it.”

Rupert’s is one of several funeral homes in Armstrong and Clarion counties that is offering to livestream funeral services on the Internet.

Lori Bullers, who co-owns the Alcorn Funeral Home in Hawthorn with her husband, Brad, said that their business offers the service to those who request it.

Rupert and Bullers both remarked on the ever-changing and sometimes conflicting attendance limits placed on in-house services. As of Dec. 29, 10 or fewer attendees are allowed at a funeral, making livestream services an attractive option.

The state does not provide any firm guidance on handling attendees, and so some funeral homes allow groups of 10 to pay their respects for a few minutes, a short interval of cleaning and sanitizing takes place and then another group of 10 is admitted.

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“At Alcorn’s, we do get requests for online services, most people are choosing to wait for springtime and hope that this will be all over,” Bullers said. At present, grave-side services are limited to 50 people.

“The good news is, almost everybody has been really good about wearing a mask since the virus has become a reality in our area,” she said. “And wearing a mask indoors is one of the state’s guidelines to help stop the spread.”

Rupert said that the focus remains on the family, though.

“People have been really good about staying focused on the needs of the family members who have lost somebody,” she said. “It is worse if they lost someone at a long-term care facility and they were not able to visit them for all these months.”

If there has been one benefit in the midst of dark days, Rupert said that it is sometimes easier to file electronic death certificates with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. However, there are still area physicians who do not use e-documents.

“So, in the middle of everything that is going on, we still have to drive around to collect certificates at doctors’ offices,” Rupert said. “This can slow down the process for some people.”

Rupert and Bullers both mentioned hoping that things return to normal in the spring or early summer so that loved ones can find a little closure in the grieving process.

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