Bob Barham tends to meet families during some of the most painful hours of their lives.
Before COVID-19 began spreading, he may have offered a hug with his condolences, as owner of Robert Barham Family Funeral Home in Meridian.
As businesses shut down across the state, Barham’s essential work of helping families say goodbye to their loved ones continued, but with certain restrictions to protect against the virus.
“The nature of our business is to greet families and to try to help them and you want to be welcoming to them and we’ve had to be more standoffish and that’s not a normal thing,” he said.
As of Wednesday, 78 people from Lauderdale County have died from COVID-19, according to state records.
Barham estimated his funeral home had handled services for about twelve people who tested positive for COVID-19, but it's not clear if their deaths were caused by the virus, he said.
In some cases, the funeral visitation was the first time families had seen their loved one since before they became sick.
“Whether it was COVID or not, they have not been able to be there when that person dies and that seems to be one of the worst things on the families than anything I’ve seen so far,” Barham said. “They haven’t been able to be present with them, whether it’s a nursing home or a hospital, they haven’t been able to be with them unless they were home.”
Inside the funeral home, everyone is required to wear masks and visitors are asked to re-sanitize their hands after signing the register book.
There are fewer hugs and handshakes in the receiving line.
In the chapel, every other pew is available for seating and the bereaved are encouraged to sit with immediate family members and separate at least six feet.
Some larger families have rotated in and out of the funeral home for services.
With the elimination or postponement of some traditional burials, chapel services and public visitations, the business’ revenue average has decreased about $800 per call, Barham said.
“Families were just having private family visitations with only the family and private family graveside (services),” Barham said. “They weren’t able to have public visitations or public services.”
Those restrictions have been lifted and the funeral home is able to operate at 50 percent capacity, he said.
The funeral home’s Facebook page shows the new reality under COVID-19 – videos of dozens of funeral and graveside services over the last few months are available for viewing.
There, those who cannot attend the services in person leave messages of sympathy.
Last month, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported a cluster of COVID-19 infections related to a funeral in Northeast Mississippi.
The funeral and after-service gathering were held in the city of Baldwyn and at least nine of the 100 who attended tested positive for the virus, MSDH said.
Barham said the potential for transmission remains a concern.
“Which is why we’re requiring face coverings like they ask us, but this is a hard environment to have people because they just naturally want to hug or be close to other folks,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, they’ve all been very cooperative, trying to abide by what’s been asked of them.”
The Barham family has been involved in the funeral business since 1985.
“I grew up in it and I had a heart for it,” Barham said. “When people are grieving it's just real satisfying to be able to help them.”