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PROGRESS 2021:

Essential in a time of need; Funeral home adapts to providing services through a pandemic

Life for most people has changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but one part that has not changed is the fact that loved ones die. Even without the pandemic, that loss is one of the most difficult things people can experience. That’s exactly why Fox and Friend Funeral Home is essential, according to owner John David Friend.

John David, along with his wife, Mary Benton Friend, has owned the funeral home since 2012, and he has been in the funeral industry since 2004. They have provided services to families grieving the loss of a loved one, and he said the arrival of COVID-19 has made that very challenging for his staff, as well as those grieving.

“This has been a real challenge, one of the hardest,” he said. “When we bought this business in 2012, it was very challenging because this was coming from a corporate back to a locally owned funeral home. But learning through this virus process has been more challenging than that.”

He added that the visitation and funeral process is important to families, and they need to have as much of a support system as possible as they grieve. That’s what he and his family and staff want to provide.

“It’s just that support system of having their friends and extended family to be here and let them hug on them, love on them, and let them know that they’re there for them. We’ve seen a lot of posts on our Facebook and website. We’ve also seen a lot of take-home pieces or memorial contributions to let the family know that, we can’t be there physically with you, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally, we are there with you and trying to support you any way you can,” he said.

Friend said he loves his work, but he thinks of it more as a calling to serve people.

“It’s been a calling for me. I taught school for four and a half years and just felt like God was calling me somewhere else. This is where I wound up, and I’m truly thankful that I have,” he explained. “I truly feel like I’m essential because this is a ministry for me. I want God’s love to show through me, and I want the family to know that although maybe I can’t physically give them a hug, I’m right here to help them and love on them any way I can throughout this process and give them that support system that might not be there at this time. So I think that’s very important.”

When COVID-19 first arrived in early 2020, Friend said the normal funeral service, which would often involve friends and family members of the deceased packing into his building, changed to a much smaller number due to mandates from government officials.

“We went from normalcy to being limited by the governor’s mandate to 10 people. That was very difficult for families. The families had to come up with who the 10 could be, and that wasn’t a rotating 10, it was a total of 10,” he said. “So we had a lot of large families, and some of the spouses and even the children couldn’t come.”

The changes forced Fox and Friend to become creative in how they serve their families, and that’s exactly what they did. Friend said technology has played a large role in how they have made sure everyone who wanted to show their love and support to a grieving family was able to do so.

“A lot of people were using Facebook Live streaming to make people feel like they were involved, and those were archived. They could go back and watch it when it was convenient for them,” he said.

Friend said the funeral home has used other methods beyond technology that were not traditional to the funeral industry, including drive-through services.

“We recently did a drive-through service at a church. They had a side carport, and we set everything up on the side carport. We had staff to sign the guest book. They would tell us their names and someone wrote it for them. We handed them a memorial card through the car window, and they would drive by the casket and wave at the family. The family would just say something from a distance to the people in the car,” he said. “But it’s been a creative way to get more people involved and let the family have that emotional support.”

When visitations do take place at the funeral home, limited attendance is a factor, and the funeral home staff has made changes to how visitors pass through their building. Friend said they have had to set up the building a lot differently, with everything from having tape on the floor to mark off safe social distancing, to having someone at the guest registry stand to clean ink pens.

“We have someone at the door counting to make sure that there’s not more than the capacity here. Our goal is to make sure that everyone is safe. We don’t want to be the ones that cause an outbreak. We strongly encourage the families that if they’re not feeling well, please stay at home and don’t expose anybody and create any risks,” he said.

One thing he pointed out that is not a health risk is exposure to someone who has passed away due to COVID-19. Friend said their had been concern that if the deceased had the virus, it could possibly be contracted by being around them, but he said information from the Centers for Disease Control have said that is not the case.

“We’ve been told by CDC reports that once embalming takes place, then the community is safe with the deceased. There were some reports that said you could get it from a deceased person, but once they have been properly embalmed, you can not,” he added.

To help avoid exposure among funeral home staff members, Friend said they have divided into teams, with members working only with those people in their team. That way, if someone does become ill, it does not impact the funeral home’s ability to remain open and continue to provide the essential services.

Although like everyone else, Friend does not know what the future will hold in terms of COVID-19, but he does see some of the changes that have come about being part of the new normal for his business. He said he feels the extra cleaning and sanitization that has become normal for many businesses will help everyone going forward.

“Our main thing is asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to keep the community more safe when they come into our building?’ Obviously, I like the idea of sanitizing the ink pens. That may never go away. The Facebook Live stream and webcasting and all those types of things, I think that’s here to stay because people have gotten used to that. Other than that, I think pretty much you go back to normal, just with some modifications to make sure that everyone is safe,” he said. “Now, the places you go into are probably more clean than they have ever been. And that’s an awareness, too. It just makes you more aware that we need a cleaner atmosphere anyway. I think it’s made the general public, as well as us, more aware that we can all be cleaner individuals, to use more hand sanitizer, and to do the things that make us safe and do the things that keep us clean.”

Friend said despite COVID-19, he wants to be certain his funeral home is providing the best service possible, and that he and his staff are treating each family they deal with like their own family.

“I just love each family that I take care of, and I want that family to be treated as if they were mine. If I were sitting on that side of the table and I was in their position, how would I want to be treated? How would I want to be loved on? How would I want to try to be accommodated to honor that person’s life that they’re grieving over,” he said. “The community is small and so tight-knit, it’s very important that you have to create those relationships with the families. We strive for excellence in everything we do and with every family we serve. That’s where I think we’re essential, because we’re the emotional support in these times that the families don’t have with the general public. If I can’t be compassionate and loving to those individuals, then they really don’t have a lot to lean on at that time. I’m so thankful that God has called me here and that I can be here to love on people.”