Sumter funeral homes show compassion, innovation amid outbreak


COVID-19 has affected individuals and businesses across the U.S., but funeral homes, a place of closure and support, have taken a beating.

After Gov. Henry McMaster gave law enforcement the ability to break up groups of three or more people as a precaution to reduce the spread of the virus, Sumter funeral homes are figuring out ways to operate as normal as possible and meet the needs of the community in a time of grief.

Notices of funeral services being postponed have increased during the coronavirus pandemic, while some go on with only a priest, a funeral home employee and a single loved one, according to The Associated Press.

However, Williams Funeral Home Vice President the Rev. James Williams said they're still serving the community with guidelines in place.

"We're taking people in. We're explaining to the people the guidelines that have been sent before us by Gov. McMaster and also our National Funeral Directors Association, which governs all funeral homes in the states," Williams said. "However, funeral home business is a business of compassion."

Williams said even though it's risky, they have an obligation to assist families in their time of grief, regardless of COVID-19.

He assured that Williams Funeral Home is taking extra steps to ensure the safety of its staff, clients and guests during the pandemic.

"We advise the public to the best of our ability. We have suggested to them that a funeral service be immediate family members only, and if they're going to have a public gathering that they try to adhere to a number of people," Williams said. "That's an encouragement, not a demand."

For the past couple of weeks, families have had to make a difficult decision as to who may attend the funeral service. From no more than 50 people to 10 and now three in a group gathering, the situation is causing more anxiety.

Bullock Funeral Home is taking a different approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Something we're in the process of doing is we'll be able to livestream from my chapel and also the graveside services," said president Harvin Bullock. "We should be up and running by the end of the week. This is new, and I think we're the only ones in Sumter with the capability of doing it."

After having about three services postponed, Bullock said they're getting creative and innovative by providing livestream funeral services through their website ( for families.

"We're trying to honor the families' wishes," Bullock said. "We certainly understand the threat of the coronavirus and the hardship, and we also understand that folks want closure. We'll work with them any way we can."

With Sumter's first two COVID-19-related deaths being confirmed this week, some local funeral homes have called the Sumter County Coroner's Office as they worry for their own safety on how to handle the bodies.

"I've had a couple funeral homes call me, and they're kind of freaking out," Coroner Robbie Baker said.

He said he has instructed funeral homes to take similar precautions that the coroner's office is taking during the virus outbreak.

"We're still doing what we normally do. One thing we have been doing is mask up now," Baker said. "If the individual did exhibit any signs or symptoms of the coronavirus, we mask up."

Baker said when they find out the individual's medical history and it seems like a possible coronavirus death, they will not be as hands-on as before. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will be conducting testing while the coroner's office waits for the result.

"We're not stopping what we do, but we're being diligent, we're being careful, and we're taking precautions," Baker said.

Alongside the coroner's office, employees at Elmore-Cannon-Stephens Funeral Home are taking precautions already in place.

"We use interpersonal precautions with all the deceased that come in, so that's not an issue anyway. We're always protecting ourselves," said Allen Cannon, a partner with the funeral home. "The majority of the time, we don't know what the circumstance is or what medical conditions folks had when they come in anyway, so we have to kind of protect ourselves from the unknown."

Cannon said they haven't had any issues with funeral services, as most families have chosen to partake in private services and gatherings of no more than 10.

"We have kind of gone with it, and, fortunately," Cannon said, "the community has taken heed to the advice that the governor has given us."