Rochester Funeral Homes Cope With the Cruelty of COVID-19

They’re not often mentioned with the other front-line workers fighting the COVID-19 crisis, but they are there nonetheless—quietly risking their health to ease the pain of others. For the men and women of Rochester’s funeral homes who consider it a sacred trust to care for the dead and provide compassionate service to their families, the barriers imposed by COVID-19 are heartbreaking. The virus is cruel—not only to the victims whose lives it takes but also to the surviving families who face unprecedented restrictions on the ways in which they say goodbye to loved ones.

Fronts of two funeral homes side by side with trees and flowers blooming

Rochester Area Funeral Homes Pixley and Potere-Modetz

John Modetz of Potere-Modetz Funeral Home is tired. He feels as though he has been working 24/7, as his funeral home copes with double the number of deaths it typically sees during this time of year. “We’ve had so many COVID deaths,” he told Rochester Media. “Somewhere between 50 and 90 across all of our locations.” Some of the families affected have been people Modetz knows personally. He’s lost friends to the virus. A couple of families he has served in recent weeks lost both parents to the disease in the span of just a few days. “I’ve been going through the most difficult event in my professional career,” he said.

Pixley Funeral Home has also handled a much higher number of deaths in recent weeks, including a significant number of COVID-19 deaths. Fortunately, its supply of PPE and refrigeration capacity have been more than sufficient to keep pace, Vern Pixley told Rochester Media. Working through the pandemic has been tiring, but his staff members have been supportive of one another, he said. “We have a tremendous, compassionate, caring group of people. They’ve been going above and beyond, but they are holding up well.”

Staff at both funeral homes have been doing everything they can to work around virus-imposed restrictions safely and creatively. Social distancing rules have changed the way visitation and funerals are conducted. No more than 10 people may attend a visitation at one time, so when necessary, Potere-Modetz uses a system of laminated, numbered cards to control occupancy in its rooms. Visitors wait in their cars in the parking lot until they receive passes handed off from other visitors leaving the building. When it comes to funeral services, livestreaming technology can be used to include family members and friends who are unable to attend because of quarantine or because of the 10-person limit on gatherings. “We focus on the things we can do to support the families, as opposed to the things we can’t do,” Pixley said.

Cemeteries currently have various rules regarding graveside services, Modetz reports. Some restrict attendance at burials to the funeral director only. Others require mourners to remain in their vehicles until the grave has been closed, while some are comfortable allowing mourners at graveside as long as they adhere to social distancing rules. Many families have chosen to postpone memorial services until later in the summer or fall, when they hope that restrictions on public gatherings will be eased. “We have a long list of postponed memorial services,” Modetz said.

Staff at both funeral homes have strict protocols in place to prevent the transmission of the virus. “We are focused on protecting the staff and the public,” Pixley said, “by providing PPE, and through an aggressive, enhanced cleaning schedule.” At Potere-Modetz, John Modetz has designated himself as the sole staff member to handle the preparation of the deceased at the Rochester location. This minimizes, as much as possible, the risk of exposure for the rest of his staff members, who handle services to the families. “I care for the dead, my staff cares for the living,” he said. But because the nature of his work may have exposed him to the virus, he is unable to approach bereaved family members and must convey his sympathies from a distance. When asked how he copes with all the difficulties caused by COVID-19, Modetz simply replied, “I have a wonderful staff.”

Being forced to care for bereaved families from a distance has been very difficult for the staff of both funeral homes. “It is hard to see the families going through this experience where they haven’t been allowed to be with their dying loved ones,” Pixley said.

Both Pixley and Modetz find that the bereaved families they serve are usually very understanding about the pandemic-imposed restrictions. Modetz said those who have taken the time to offer him words of support, even in their own grief, have humbled him. He doesn’t know how and when the pandemic will be resolved, but he acknowledges that it has changed him forever. “I know I will never be the same funeral director that I was back in December or January,” he said.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. June Hopaluk says

    I can not even imagine how the staff at both Potere-Modetz and Pixley funeral homes have managed these recent months. Thank you to John & Mary Modetz and all their staff. Thank you to the Pixley family and all their staff.

  2. Ivy Miitchell says

    Having benefiited from the care offered to families when my parents and my husband passed, I can appreciate the concerns for all the staff at Pixley’s.

  3. Kathy Kerr says

    I was a employee for years at Potere Modetz, John and Mary Modetz are simply the most caring people. The rest of the staff also go above and beyond.
    I lost a special Aunt to Covid a few weeks ago…it was a simple yet dignified graveside service.

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