For decades, Eastern Kentucky families have honored a tradition that brings them out in droves to funerals to pay respect to their families, friends and neighbors.

This month, that time-honored tradition ended, at least temporarily, because of COVID-19, leaving officials at Floyd County funeral homes with no choice but to restrict visitation. Funerals are now private in Kentucky, limited to only immediate family members — the parents, siblings, grandparents and children of the deceased — and only private burials are permitted.

“We are to adhere to this. It came down from the governor and the state board, and if we don’t do it, there can be further actions. We could lose our funeral establishment licenses or be fined. All funeral homes are to adhere to this,” said Jim Carter of Carter Funeral Home in Prestonsburg.

In a March 18 letter to funeral homes, Rob Riley, president of the Funeral Directors Association of Kentucky, told funeral home directors that they are “called on to make major sacrifices” to the way they operate.

“FDAK fully expects that if we don’t adhere to the stated requirements, then the governor will take further action and possibly close Kentucky funeral homes to visitations and funerals,” Riley wrote.

The changes have been hard to swallow for officials at the three funeral homes serving Floyd County, but they are following the guidelines.

“Times are hard enough, and this is really hard on a grieving family, but we have to go with what we’ve been, I hate to say, ordered to do,” Carter said. “Not only are we trying to protect the public, but I also have to try to protect my staff and myself and my wife. ... I feel sorry for the grieving families because it’s a time of gathering, not a happy time, but a time of gathering, and support from friends and neighbors, now you can’t get that. I think it’s just sad, just a sad thing, but this is something that we’ve been mandated to do, so we have to follow what they have put on us.”

Floyd County Coroner Greg Nelson of Nelson-Frazier Funeral Home, said his staff is suggesting that families opt to hold memorial services at a later date. Officials at Carter Funeral Home and Hall Funeral Home in Martin are also giving families that option.

“It’s very difficult. It puts me out of my comfort zone because we’re always used to doing what the family wants done, and it’s difficult to limit people from paying their respects,” Nelson said. “It puts us in a very uncomfortable place.”

He said his funeral home is trying to help these families as much as they are able.

“We’re trying to leave as much up to the family as we can because, the norm for us is whatever we can do to help the family and what their wishes are, is what we’re used to doing,” Nelson said. “We’re not used to enforcing regulations on them. But hopefully, I hope that if everybody will go by it, then maybe we can get past this to where we can get back to the normal business.”

He explained why the limitations make these services so difficult.

“We have to abide by the guidelines. If they’ll just try to understand our aspect and bare with us until we get through this, you know, the sooner we can take care of this, the sooner we can get back to what everybody is used to,” Nelson said. “We’re at a discomfort as much as they are because it’s all new to us. We’re not used to this, and we definitely don’t like limiting people. Here in the mountains, where we’re from, it’s just always been a tradition. Friends, neighbors have always been real good about paying respect and trying to help the family. This kind of takes that way.”

For the first time on Friday, March 20, Hall Funeral Home hosted a live feed of a funeral on its Facebook page. It was the funeral for Ottie Rae Rice, 69, of Prestonsburg, widow of Willis Howard Rice, who died March 17.

“Given the situation that we’re in, I don’t know if you’d call it innovative or creative or just resourceful, but we’ve taken to — we have a pretty large following on our Facebook page, and we’ve decided that even though the public can’t be here, we’re encouraging them to attend these services remotely. We’re livestreaming them on our Facebook page,” said Brennan Case, a funeral director and embalmer at Hall Funeral Home.

Case said the funeral home is offering the service only to families who request it. He encourages people who watch the funerals online to leave a comment, so they can add the names to the registry that will be given to the family after the funeral.

“I never would have dreamed that something like this would be necessary, or that it’d be something that you’d need to resort to,” Case said. “We’ve had, in the past, companies contact us wanting us to livestream, like through our website, and we never really wanted to do that, because people in Eastern Kentucky, they like to come together and show their support. I was against that. Don’t give people a reason not to come. But now, it makes you see that stuff like that can be useful. I don’t think that it’s something that, just in an everyday situation that we’re going to do, but I can see where it definitely can play a role.”

Carter Funeral Home, Nelson-Frazier Funeral Home and Hall Funeral Home are still accepting flowers for families who have lost loved ones. Officials at those funeral homes encourage people who want to pay respect to send condolences on their websites or support the families in other ways.

“Just try to make it easier on the family and try to respect the guidelines that’s there and not make it any harder on the family than what it already is. Of course, a phone call, flowers, anything like that of encouragement would be a help,” Nelson said.

Case asks the public to support local funeral homes as well.

“All of our local funeral homes here, we’re doing things in different ways, but it’s amazing, how you can see that we all have one goal, which is wanting to take care of these families, wanting to support our community,” Case said. “I just ask that the public understands and support us in what we’re wanting to do.”

He explained, “It’s a thing to where, there’s nobody that hates it more than us, all of our local funeral homes, not just us, but if we don’t follow these recommendations, there’s a chance that it could become a mandate and we could lose our establishment license.”

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