Cedar Rapids funeral home prepares for ‘ever-growing death rate,’ more funerals this winter

A Cedar Rapids funeral home says it’s preparing for this winter to have one of the highest death rates in Iowa over the last several years.
Published: Nov. 19, 2020 at 11:14 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Teahen Funeral Home in northwest Cedar Rapids has made quite a few changes since the spring.

A table now greets guests by the front door for temperature checks before visitations. A device to allow services to be streamed virtually who family and friends who can’t attend in person stands in the chapel.

And in one of the most striking differences, a decontamination area has been set up in the funeral home’s basement.

“This way, we contain all the infectious contaminants in this spot,” President and Funeral Director Peter Teahen explained as he pointed out the bleach, soap, sponges, gloves, eye protection, and even plastic wrap that await employees who work in the area.

Teahen said he certainly never anticipated setting the decontamination zone up, but he added that at this point, they have to treat every death and every family they serve as if COVID-19 is present.

“They’re completely decontaminated, make sure they’re as clean as possible before they’re brought into the next phase of the process, into the preparation room or the embalming room,” he said.

Teahen said they don’t want to spread the virus to family members during visitations or among the business’ workers either.

But funeral homes are watching for the possibility an entire staff gets infected.

“The Iowa Funeral Directors Association, they created an emergency list of funeral directors, so if one funeral home goes down, funeral directors from somewhere in the state of Iowa will go to that location and make sure that the families there continue to be served,” he said.

Teahen said some funeral homes in eastern Iowa have also put together a surge plan to handle the possibility of a rise in deaths and subsequent funerals becoming unmanageable. However, he said he doesn’t anticipate his funeral home or others needing to implement that plan, and he also doesn’t believe Iowa will face the backup in funeral preparations that places like New York City and El Paso, Texas, have experienced.

“I think in Iowa, I think we’re well prepared,” Teahen said. “Funeral directors are working with each other through our associations to make sure that we don’t have the problems they have in the other states. I feel confident we’ll handle it successfully.”

Teahen said it’s not just the rising COVID numbers that have forced these measures.

It’s also flu season approaching, coupled with COVID in what Teahen calls “a deadly combination.”

“We’re anticipating an ever-growing death rate, probably a higher death rate in Iowa than we have seen in the last four or five years. We are preparing that,” he said.

That has also led Teahen Funeral Home to stock up on PPE, knowing funeral homes have to compete with healthcare workers and other industries for the supply, and amassing embalming chemicals — Teahen said they currently have a six-month supply, much more than they would under normal circumstances.

“We knew this winter was coming, and so we’ve been buying along to make sure it’s safe,” he said. " … We are in the mindset that we have to prepare for how we serve families because we believe this will be going on all the way into a year from now.”

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