Americans know the basics for stopping the spread of flu viruses: Wash your hands. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Stay home if you’re sick.
Most of us probably agree in principle with closing schools, if a flu outbreak grows to the level of an epidemic or, in the worst-case scenario, a deadly worldwide pandemic.
But what if - in order to protect the public at large - the Center for Disease Control recommended you cancel, postpone or modify plans for your mother’s funeral?
Representatives of public health agencies have been meeting with local citizens in Cuyahoga and Franklin counties in Ohio and in five other states to formulate plans to be implemented in the event of a pandemic like the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918, which took the lives of 675,000 Americans and 40 million people worldwide.
The victims weren’t the usual suspects: infants and the elderly. That pandemic killed a significant number of previously healthy people in their 20s and 30s.
Newspapers in those days overflowed with obituaries and brief notices of death for flu victims, who had been fine when they went to bed at night, got sick in the morning and were dead by dusk.
Flu is the public health focus at this time, because of the possible resurgence of last spring’s H1N1 virus during the coming flu season, but the principles of containment would apply for any highly contagious disease as well as biological, chemical or other threats.
“What will we do this fall?” Matt Carroll, director of the Cleveland Department of Public Health, asked participants during a brainstorming session at the Cuyahoga County Department of Health on July 21, 2009. “What we do know for sure is we have to be prepared.”
During a pandemic, health care systems and mortuaries quickly become overwhelmed. Public services become disrupted. Obtaining necessities can become impossible.
To limit the spread of disease in severe cases, officials may prescribe quarantines and social distancing. The latter would include such measures as closing schools and public buildings and postponing, cancelling or modifying such public gatherings as sporting events, concerts and theater productions, and religious services – including funerals.
Government interference with these once-in-a-lifetime memorial events could be viewed as an encroachment on our civil liberties. It could raise the ire of families in the throes of grief and with thousands of dollars invested in the perfect sendoff for their deceased loved ones.
“You can cancel the services, but the family’s going to cry out: I’m going to bury my mother if I have to do it in my backyard!” said Mahmud Jabbar, who represented First Cleveland Mosque at the meeting.
Glenda Buzzelli, chief administrative officer of Catholic Charities Health and Human Services, suggested , “Bury the body, but delay the ceremony.”
Other participants suggested employing high-tech solutions to allow mourners to view the funeral from home on personal computers or television or listen to it on a telephone through conference calling. Some Ohio funeral homes already offer broadcasts, webcasts and videos of funerals.
Aaron Goldenberg, assistant director of Case Western Reserve University's Center for Genetic Research Ethics and Law, mentioned that he once observed the High Holidays via webcast while he was away from his synagogue.
Those families who choose to welcome mourners at a traditional funeral in spite of the health risks should consider providing protective facemasks and gloves.
The well-being of the public at large should and likely will take priority in the event of a pandemic, conference participants agreed.
“I have a feeling that when people around you are dying, self-preservation will kick in,” said Dan Rossbach, director of pastoral care at MetroHealth Medical Center.
Public health officials urge religious, cultural and ethnic groups, schools, funeral homes and other businesses to develop plans for what to do in the event of a pandemic or other disaster now. Don't wait for a crisis to happen.
For assistance in developing emergency plans for your group or family, to have a public health representative speak to your group and to learn more, go to ObitsOhio.com’s “Links” page, which is accessible from the blue menu bar at the top of this page, and visit agencies listed under “Public Health and Disaster Relief.”
This "Dash Between" column was written by Alana Baranick and originally posted on ObitsOhio.com on July 23, 2009.