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Q&A: New Orleans Funeral Director Talks Social Distancing Restrictions And Accommodations

Travis Lux
Jacob Schoen and Son Funeral Home. March 25, 2020.

Many of the cultural traditions in New Orleans, and South Louisiana more generally, set the region apart from the rest of the country. And one of the biggest ways is how we honor the lives of our loved ones after they’ve died.

In many parts of the country, solemn mourning takes precedent. Here, celebration plays a part, most evident in the jazz funeral tradition.

Still, mourning usually means gathering with our friends and family, something complicated by social distancing restrictions in place to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

To get a better sense of how public health restrictions are changing funerals in the city, New Orleans Public Radio spoke with Patrick Schoen, managing partner at Jacob Schoen and Son Funeral Directors.

Travis Lux: We all know that these public health restrictions are essential, but they’re also changing the way that we’re being social out in the world. That’s tough in a town like this, which is a very social town. People want to gather. And of course, gathering is an essential part of what makes a funeral service a funeral service. So how is all of this changing what you do in your line of work?

Patrick Schoen: Well, we actually have to follow the Louisiana state law, which is requiring that there can be no more than 10 people at a service. That would include the clergy and the funeral director. So we’re limiting the services just to the immediate family.

And we’re able to live stream, so the families can send it out to family members or friends that would like to see the service itself.

So you’re leaning a little bit more on technology now that the numbers of people who are allowed to attend are limited.

That’s correct, yes. And it’s for convenience and for safety reasons we’re doing that. It’s gone over well so far. We’ve had a few services already and that’s been fine.

Some families are electing to cremate. And if they do, then we’re gonna have a regular, traditional service afterwards, when everything is fine again.

After all these restrictions are removed? Maybe months down the line? We’re not sure when that will be but they’re pushing pause on having a service altogether until more people can gather?

That is correct, yes. And then the families that choose not to cremate — they also can have graveside services. We’ll just go right to the gravesite, but it’s still limited to 10 people.

What about individuals who might die of COVID-19? Are there any restrictions around how those bodies need to be handled?

Yes. We have a care center, and they’re following all the proper restrictions on how to handle everything.

Can you describe for me what a typical memorial service looks like for a family, before all of these restrictions went into place? How many people typically show up, and what does it look like now?

For a typical funeral service, before COVID-19, the average was like 200 people per funeral. It could go more than that, but that’s just the average. And now, of course, it’s down to 10.

What does this mean for mourning and the grief process in this time? I imagine it’s got to be difficult for families who want to gather, to remember and celebrate the lives of the loved ones that they’re losing but now are forced to do that a little bit differently than they might have expected.

They are. And it’s been very difficult for some of our families. But everybody’s just trying to do the best that they can right at this time to make sure that everybody is still safe. So we are giving them the option to have the funeral service at a later date, and that’s what a lot of families are electing to do.

The interview transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

For the latest coronavirus developments in the state, be sure to check out our live blog.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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