Funeral homes slammed by COVID-19 deaths

By Avalon Pernell

Michael Lotts, the co-owner of two local funeral homes, thought the coronavirus pandemic hit Rockbridge County as hard as it slammed New York City.

The county has far fewer people than New York, but the death toll’s impact stretched small town resources as much as it did in the nation’s biggest cities.

“I had several conversations with emergency services in Rockbridge County for a refrigerated truck if need be,” said Lotts, co-owner of Harrison Funeral Home in Lexington and Bolling, Grose & Lotts Funeral Home in Buena Vista. “We never got to that point, but several mornings when I got up, I think I was almost there.”

Lotts, 65, said the increase in the number of people who died placed more strain on his staff and their ability to prepare bodies for burial and offer comfort to families.

Michael Lotts, co-owner of Harrison Funeral Home and Bolling, Grose & Lotts Funeral Home (Avalon Pernell photo)

“For about seven weeks in November and December we handled a third of what normal business would be for a year,” he said.

Lexington recorded 19 COVID related deaths, Rockbridge County 31, and Buena Vista 12, as of Feb. 24, according to data compiled by the Virginia Department of Health.

Both funeral homes have offered only graveside services to accommodate for social distancing and comply with state guidelines since last March.

Those tough conversations

Greg Chittum, the manager of Bolling, Grose & Lotts Funeral Home, said the pandemic changed some of his conversations with grieving families.

“Telling families they’ve got to do a certain kind of service to celebrate their family has definitely been hard,” he said.

But Chittum, 39, said his ties to the community helped him engage in those hard conversations and motivated him to provide the best experience possible to the families.

“It’s one last thing I can do for them to help them get through the process,” he said.

Lotts said employees like Chittum kept the funeral homes operating under the stress of more bodies to prepare for funerals.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re one of our administrative assistants in the office. It doesn’t matter if you’re the person that just does night calls for me,” Lotts said. “Without all of those spokes connected this wheel doesn’t turn.”

Lotts said he was thankful the Carilion Clinic treated the funeral home’s employees like first responders and offered the vaccine to them.

“They reached out instead of us having to wait to get the vaccines through the state of Virginia,” he said. “It made me feel better to the point that I would not actually give this virus to somebody else because I know that I’ve probably been exposed.”

His employees said they also feel more comfortable interacting with the public after receiving the Moderna vaccine.

“I’ve never been scared of the virus as far as my health. But I was scared of getting the virus and transferring it to families,” Chittum said. “The vaccine definitely takes a little bit of that stress away.”

A different kind of first responder

But Lotts said this is not the funeral home’s first challenging experience.

“We have been exposed to a lot of things for a lot of years,” he said. “Hepatitis, AIDs, tuberculosis, sepsis, C-diff, so there’s a lot of enemies out there that we face every day.”

Still, for some grieving families, the statewide coronavirus guidelines limiting the number of people who can attend funeral services has made it more difficult to find closure.

Michael Hamilton, the pastor of First Brethren church, said he has struggled telling families about limits on services.

“How do you tell a family, ‘Hey, you can only have six people?’” he said. “Who do you choose?”

Hamilton said the gathering limits on services make it difficult for families to move on from the passing of their loved ones.

“You need a service,” he said. “You need closure. You need to grieve.”

Hamilton said his faith helped him support families processing the deaths of loved ones.

“Being Christians we’re not immune from difficult times,” he said. “But we grieve differently because we have Christ.”

Lotts said the community has responded well to the social distancing guidelines and capacity limits. And as cases decline in the community, he said the last year reminded him that funeral homes were a different kind of first responder.

“We’re not a normal business at all. We’re not like a hardware store or a manufacturing plant that we know what orders we have to fill, and how much staff we need to have to fill those orders,” he said. “God does my schedule every night.”