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Duluth-area funeral directors provide fact check on embalming during COVID-19

"No matter what somebody dies from we take care of it," Dan Dougherty, funeral home owner in Duluth, said.

Funeral director Dan Dougherty poses in his funeral home Friday. He contacted the News Tribune this week to clear up misinformation regarding funerals during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Duluth-area funeral directors woke on Thursday to a story, "Confronting death in time of COVID-19," on page A1 of the News Tribune, that struck them in ways it didn't hit other readers.

The death of Gloria Lott, 88, to an outbreak of the disease at St. Ann's Residence in Duluth, touched people throughout the Twin Ports and Iron Range. Her death was significant for being one of the first coronavirus deaths in St. Louis County, and an illustration of the grim situation at the nursing home.

But Dan Dougherty responded adversely, and was eager to correct misinformation repeated in it.

"Just because they have it, doesn't mean they can't be embalmed," Dougherty, owner of Dougherty Funeral Home in Duluth, said, a fact later supported by the head of the state funeral directors association. "No matter what somebody dies from, we take care of it."

The Lott family also agreed to set the record straight, confirming they were given two options by Landmark Funeral Home of Virginia: cremation or immediate burial with no embalming, which is what family chose. The funeral home is licensed by the Minnesota Department of Health, but does not appear to use a state-licensed mortician. Dougherty was critical of that fact, relating it to how misinformation can spread.


When reached, Landmark declined to speak with the News Tribune.

Dougherty was also critical about how the story made it seem like embalming was not being offered or practiced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dougherty Funeral Home, 600 East Second Street. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"(Before) a death occurs, anybody can prearrange a funeral, but as soon as somebody dies you have to have a licensed funeral home," Dougherty said. "You can be embalmed; they recommended you just don’t kiss them. What embalming is, is temporary preservation and disinfection. It makes it safe to come near the body, because when a person dies not necessarily what killed them dies with it."

Licensed morticians and funeral establishments are made privy to best practices updates. And lately those have been coming almost daily, said Chris Jacobson, a funeral director living in Proctor.

Jacobson is president of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association. He said industry advocates rallied early on during the stay-at-home order to have their services remain essential. They've had to get creative, moving some sensitive family meetings online, using drive-in and live-streaming services, and taking advanced precautions in their work behind closed doors. Jacobson did not want to address the Lotts' issue specifically.

"For a lot of people, this has come on fast and strong," Jacobson said. "We’re just being very cautious as this develops. We haven't had a lot of interaction with COVID-19 yet (with 111 deaths statewide). It seems to be growing in our community."


One service Jacobson was part of recently replaced funeral-goers with a flower each spread throughout the pews.

"We're really trying to be innovative and create opportunities for families and not take them away," Jacobson said. "So whatever their preference is, we'll do our best to honor their wishes."

Dougherty said some families he has worked with have continued to hold family-only church services or chapel services inside the funeral home. They practice social distancing, he said.

A century ago, Dougherty's grandfather worked through the Spanish flu. Funeral directors during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s adopted rigorous use of universal precautions to prevent transfer of bodily fluids and contamination.

"We're careful," Dougherty said. "Very few people wash hands more than funeral directors."

Dougherty stressed the importance of the licensing issue for the way it allows funeral directors to keep up with best practices.

Since the start of the spread of coronavirus, funeral directors have moved from hugs and handshakes to elbow bumps and now social distancing entirely.

"It's so foreign to us, because we know our families," Dougherty said. "Having to be standoffish, it's just not in our DNA."


The idea that COVID-19 could negatively affect a service such as the embalming process wasn't the only misinformation being floated about the industry. While cremation remains as viable as any option, it's not specifically preferred or being made mandatory.

"That’s a biggie, too, and it’s absolutely not true," Dougherty said. "We bury quite a few people as funeral directors. We have to go home to our families, too. This is what funeral directors do."

Dougherty Funeral Home, 600 East Second Street. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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