The Hellum Funeral Home has offered a drive-thru memorial service for decades. The idea, first germinated during a 1980 remodeling after a fire, was to give the people of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the opportunity for a kitschy viewing service — a slow parade of cars peeling through the parking lot to pay their respects without ever leaving the vehicle. To that end, they installed a big rectangle window peering out from the home’s back wall and a cubby big enough to hold a casket. Wendy Hellum, the owner of the facility, tells me that people almost never took advantage of the service. Now, in the middle of a pandemic and statewide limitations on gatherings, she’d guess that drive-thru funerals are 90 percent of her business.
Hellum Funeral Home can still hold in-person ceremonies. But under Tennessee policy, the number of attendees needs to be restricted to 10 or fewer. For now, it is simply more efficient, and more communal, to summon a cavalcade of friends and family, each individually sheltered by their own sedans and SUVs, to send off a loved one with as many witnesses as possible. Hellum holds up her end of the bargain; her employees hand out bookmarks and programs to each car. They sign each attendee’s name in the guest book. They wear masks emblazoned with the funeral home logo. It was difficult to imagine the mechanics of an automated memorial service three months ago, but Hellum generated a socially distant workaround at a remarkable pace.
Wendy Hellum believes that someday, things will go back to normal. But she also expects that the realities of drive-thru funerals will stick around for months, not weeks. It is heartening, she says, to watch her clients honor the departed as best they can, considering the circumstances, but she feels awful that they aren’t able to mourn together. Elbow-bumping at a funeral just isn’t the same. Read our conversation below.
When did you start noticing the pandemic affecting your business?
When the state started closing down stuff with social distancing and everything [on April 2.] That’s when it all started for me. We didn’t have to cancel anybody coming in, but now we’re having 10 people show up at a time. People are coming and going, one batch at a time.
How did you end up with a funeral home with a drive-thru window?
We had a fire, and we rebuilt in 1980. So we put a window in, and we didn’t really use it until now. But now it works out perfectly. My employee brought it to my attention, like, “We can start using this drive-thru window now!” I said, “Yeah, this is the perfect time.” As soon as we started shutting down, that’s when we started it up.
How do all these proceedings work?
I have the window open, and we have the remains in there, which you can see as the bereaved drive through. We put flowers on top of the casket. People never have to come out in the cars. I have people out there signing register forms. We have family members greeting people while they’re coming through. It really fits the bill.
And you have employees signing the register books and everything?
Yeah, they have the register books. We’ll have a girl writing everyone’s name down in them. And we have programs. We’ll have someone handing out the programs and bookmarks [through the car windows.]
I would imagine that your employees are all stocked up in PPE during these ceremonies.
Yes, masks on, gloves on. I got someone to make the masks. They’ve all got our funeral home logo on it, so everybody knows. I want the family members to be safe as well as us.
How appreciative have people been that you’ve found a way to stay open despite the circumstances?
They’ve been very appreciative. I’m glad we can give people some sort of closure. Especially in these times.
Have you guys changed any of your sanitation policies when it comes to prepping bodies during this pandemic?
We’ve only had three Covid cases. But we’ve still been busy. I’ve always felt that anyone that comes in contact with a body should be taking precautions anyway. But it’s doubled now. We’re especially careful. More bleach, more hand sanitizer, more wipes.
For the clients you’re serving, do they expect this to be the only funeral they have for the deceased? Or do they expect to have a more formal ceremony when people can gather again?
I’ve never had anyone say that, but I’ve offered it to them. That we could hold it later, free of charge, if they’re still grieving. But this is the new normal. And I think everybody has to get used to it. Either way, I’ve offered it to them. So whatever they want to do is fine.
So it’s started to dawn on you that this is going to be the way you’ll be forced to do things for a long time.
Yeah, I say that we’ll be doing this for a long time, but eventually things will go back to normal. But for now, everything has been canceled; everything has changed.
Have you felt any more pride in your work right now, given how important it is that your business stays open during this time?
Yeah, I feel bad for my clients because they can’t grieve in the traditional way. Our community is a hands-on, touchy-feely, kissy-huggy place. We love on each other. Now we’re just bumping and dapping.