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Funeral director: “We don’t hug. We don’t shake hands”

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Paul Gardner, Smith and Gaston director, near the lobby photos of funeral home founders A.L. Smith and A.G. Gaston. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)
By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times

Funeral directors are used to reading the facial expressions of grieving families to help provide comfort, compassion, and support. With face coverings now required for citizens in the city of Birmingham through July 3, that has become difficult, so funeral directors now focus on the eyes of those who are grieving.

“Not only the eyes but the spirit, the human spirit, so you can have a greater sense of how you can support that family,” said Marion Sterling, president of Davenport and Harris Funeral Home. “Everybody grieves differently. Prior to the pandemic and even after, in today’s environment the funeral director has to use an acute sense of sensitivity to understand how to best support a family.”

Normally, funeral directors would also offer a shoulder on which a grieving family member can cry. Not so now.

“We don’t hug. We don’t shake hands,” said Paul Gardner, director of Smith and Gaston Funeral Services in North Titusville. “We try to keep that distance, that six feet apart. Everybody is aware of that, and everybody’s trying to adjust to that.”

Arlillian Kate Bushelon, manager of Bushelon Funeral Home in West End, said she’s had to “throw out the book and start over” in some ways when it comes to supporting families in her care. Restrictions on attending a service combined with required social distancing have made that part of the job tougher.

“We have a little bit more burden on our shoulders now, but we accept it because it’s our job,” she said. “For a lot of families, we’re the only people who are really there in support during their time of need, either because they have families scattered all over the United States, because of fear that stops people from coming out, or because they’re trying to abide by the mandates and staying in compliance by just staying at home.”

During these unprecedented times, Bushelon said funeral directors have had to provide even more comfort for families because others cannot. 

Arlillian Kate Bushelon, manager, Bushelon Funeral Home. (Solomon Crenshaw, Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

“They’re really depending on us versus the usual [people who] would be there to take care of them, to come by the house, to lend help with the obituary or whatever,” she said. “They don’t have those things anymore, so they’re really leaning on us now to do those things, as well as to gain some understanding of why this is happening at this moment.”

Acknowledging that funeral directors are not licensed psychologists or counselors, Bushelon said the pandemic has caused some complications for those who grieve.

“We’re trying our best,” she said. “We really have to take on that role because there’s a void there for the community . . . coming in to help the families. We have really kind of changed our roles as just being the rock for our families at this time.”

Click here to read more stories about saying farewell.