The funeral industry has undergone many changes since the COVID-19 pandemic hit American shores, from online live streaming of events to scheduled viewing times. 

These days, however, which side of the Columbia River you live on dictates crowd size and whether or not receptions are allowed after a funeral. In Oregon, businesses in Phase 2 can have up to 100 people indoors, but in Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee recently rolled back crowd sizes to 20 percent or 30 people — whichever is lower, and only if facilities are able to maintain a six-foot physical distance — because of recent coronavirus surges.

Oregon expands for counties in Phase 2

When Oregon’s Executive Order 20-12 went into effect March 23, it limited gatherings to 10 people. Current mandates on gatherings make it possible for larger crowds; Anderson’s Tribute Center in Hood River and The Dalles said current business guidelines for counties in Phase 2 allow them to accommodate 100 visitors inside and 250 outdoors. All must wear masks and practice social distancing. 

Anderson’s has disposable and homemade cloth masks, made by Office Administrator Mayra Sandoval, at both its Hood River and The Dalles locations. Face shields are also allowed, though not provided. 

“We are trying to be creative and welcome ideas,” said Patrick Cornelius, director and embalmer at Anderson’s. To protect those entering the buildings, Anderson’s has hand sanitizer at the front door, is spacing its seating in the chapel, opening doors to increase ventilation, offering individually packaged refreshments for receptions and scheduling appointments for viewings or rotating groups, as well as offering viewings and services on virtual platforms, he said.

Spencer, Libby and Powell Funeral Home, located in The Dalles, follows the same state guidelines. Hand sanitizer is available at multiple locations throughout the facility, and masks at the front desk.

“We have a universal protocol that is taken very seriously in all situations and this is no different,” said Spencer, Libby and Powell co-owner Julie Harris. “We are following any and all state guidelines in this situation as well … Our arrangement room chairs are spaced appropriately to minimize safety concerns. We do have the ability to do all arrangements remotely as well if people are uncomfortable in person.”

As of press time Aug. 10, both Hood River and Wasco counties are in Phase 2, but on the watchlist due to increasing COVID infections.

Washington shrinks crowd sizes

In Washington, Domonique Krentz, co-owner of Gardner Funeral Home of White Salmon and Columbia Hills Memorial Chapel of Goldendale with husband Derek Krentz, said they are able to accommodate a maximum of 30 people in their facility while still maintaining social distancing guidelines.

“We also have an outdoor venue with the same capacity, but with a little more area to spread out,” she said. “Receptions, however, are prohibited.”

Most people are already wearing masks when they come in, she said, but they have masks on site, as well as hand sanitizer. Frequent disinfecting is another way the facility aims to keep its visitors safe.

“We are constantly disinfecting the doorknobs and other items people may touch while in our facility,” Krentz said. “We also meet outdoors in our garden area. This seems to put a lot of people at ease, not just because of social distancing, but because it feels good to be outside — especially on nice days.”

As of Aug. 6, Washington Gov. Inslee’s office put new wedding and funeral guidelines into effect: Occupancy is limited to 20 percent or 30 people — whichever is lower — and only if facilities are able to maintain a six-foot physical distance. While ceremonies are permitted, receptions are not.

According to the Washington State Governor’s Office, “The changes target activities that data have shown provide a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure.”

‘Biggest heartbreak’

While it’s not quite business as usual for any of the Gorge area funeral homes because of crowd limits and constant disinfecting, it’s the grieving families who have had to show the greatest flexibility during the past five months.

“The amount of people we are able to accommodate is dictated by the state guidelines we have to adhere to at any given moment; our gathering hall is large enough for plenty of social distancing when allowed, however, so we are fortunate there,” said Harris. “The biggest heartbreak for us has been the fact that many families have not been able to have the proper closure that they need. Not being able to gather for a celebration of life or memorial of their loved one is very difficult on families.”

“We haven’t had to change our business, really; the families are the ones who have to make sacrifices,” Krentz said. “So many want to have funeral and memorial services, but because of COVID-19, they have had to postpone the celebrations. That’s the sad part.”

And social distancing with the clients they serve can also be hard. “Because we know so many of the families we serve, we all want to hug,” she said.

“I think it’s important that we educate our community with concrete information before they are in their time of need or walk into our facilities,” said Cornelius. 

“We’ve seen that folks forget we are also a business with a moral responsibility to our community, vulnerable populations and ourselves and fall under specific guidelines mandated by the governor.”

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