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Paul Hardy understands death.
As the funeral director and owner of the Blake Chelmsford Funeral Home, he watches families say good-bye to loved ones week in and week out.
But lately, there’s a twist. Large grieving family members arrive to pay their respects only to learn they can’t go inside the building where their loved one is being waked. Hardy must stick to state guidelines that allow only 10 people to gather indoors at once and they cannot touch each other.
“They have to stand at a distance,” Hardy said, noting they can’t hug either. “It’s very hard not letting them touch. People need support during the ceremony.”
The global pandemic has killed 196K people across the nation so far and continues to burrow into nursing homes, family homes, offices, and businesses. It has now been found in untreated waste water, is believed to live in feces, and will possibly show up in recreational water venues this summer, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
As of April 24, Chelmsford has 176 COVID cases and Westford has 101. Massachusetts has 1,062,446 confirmed cases to date and 62,405 deaths. The country has 910K confirmed cases, and the globe has 3,386,852 cases, and 238,792 deaths, according to the CDC.
So far, Hardy said he’s had five decedents who were confirmed positive for COVID-19, and “a few more who were listed as possible.”
The facility has about a month’s worth of protective gear — masks, gowns, shoe covers and gloves — some provided by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and some hunted down.
“It is a challenge finding them,” Hardy said. “On a normal basis we have enough for a year. Now we have about a month’s supply.”
When readying a body to be put on display, Hardy said he and his staff take careful precautions to cover themselves from head to toe and to disinfect the work area. Wearing a protective gown that covers an attendant’s clothes is the newest adaptation, Hardy said. And now they do one more thing, he said.
“We cover the face of the deceased before leaving,” he said.
Funeral planning has also changed, Hardy said. There are no more in person meetings. Arrangements are made via email and phone calls.
Hardy lost his brother-in-law at age 28 and his mother at age 16. The grief led him to eventually take charge of the Blake Funeral Home. He is there to give comfort, if only he could.
“We hug them when they come,” he said of the period before COVID-19 employed the phrase, ‘social distancing.’ We cry when they leave.”
Recently an 80-something man from nearby Tyngsborough lost his wife potentially to the virus. The husband was quarantined while his wife was being waked and buried, Hardy said. The man’s family could not reach out to him — no hugs, no comfort.
Hardy said he “hurts” for them.
“I can’t imagine not being able to touch the most important person in my life,” he said.
UPDATE: The number of worldwide cases and deaths were updated on May 1, 2020.