Bill Kelly was a well-known member of the West Volusia community. Part of a large family of community activists, Kelly had followed in his parents’ footsteps in establishing a successful DeLand accounting firm. He went on to serve as CFO of Volusia County Schools.
Kelly was active with several nonprofits, too, and had been running for a seat on the Volusia County School Board when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018.
When he died in June 2020, Bill Kelly’s many friends and family members were unable to gather to celebrate his life and grieve his passing.
Welcome to death in the time of COVID-19.
The Florida Department of Health estimates that 8,240 Volusia County residents died in 2020 — about 800 more than in 2019, and more than double the average annual increase. The people who loved those individuals, for the most part, were deprived of the ritual of a funeral.
“It was traumatic, not just because my father passed, but because he passed during COVID,” Bill Kelly’s daughter Stephanie Kelly-Thompson said. “I still feel like I have zero closure.”
Bill Kelly’s death was unrelated to the virus itself, but COVID-19 dictated the terms of his passing.
“We couldn’t even be with him when he died,” Kelly-Thompson said. “He died alone because of COVID.”
Pandemic-wrought change has affected not just mourners, but funeral providers.
“Not only have we seen an increase in the number of deaths, due to COVID-19, but the type of service and the way families can finalize arrangements for their loved ones is a lot different,” Rodney Rocker Sr. said.
Rocker is the funeral director for Cusack Mortuary in DeLand and Rocker Cusack Mortuary in Leesburg. He said having to deny services to families hasn’t been easy.
“It’s just very hurtful sometimes that you can’t provide the service that a family wants to have because of the conditions during this pandemic,” Rocker said. “We’re a service industry. Sometimes families want to do some things, and we just have to tell them they can’t.”
In Bill Kelly’s case, during his valiant two-year battle with cancer, he had time to plan for the worst outcome.
“My dad had wanted this huge funeral. We’re going to give him a proper send-off eventually,” Kelly-Thompson said. “He loved to help the community. He put everybody before himself. I just wish we could have given him his final thank-you.”
The family ended up holding a small, graveside service for Bill Kelly. That’s what many families are doing, according to Rocker.
Mortuary staff members have also made changes necessary to protect their health and their own families.
“The risk this business takes is we are in contact with the people COVID-19 may have exposed. We have to be doubly cautious,” Cusack Mortuary Owner and Manager Brenda Cusack said. “I think recognition needs to be given to last responders the same way they’re given to first responders.”
“This pandemic, we view it the same way as when AIDS first came out. There are a lot of unknowns, so you treat everyone as if they’re infected,” Rocker said. “You have to, because you never know.”
Darcell Ashley, an employee with Cusack Mortuary in DeLand, said added safety precautions make burial preparation take longer, on top of the increase in deaths.
“Sometimes we’ll make a pickup, and that’s the first thing we ask, period. Is it a COVID case? We still approach each case like a COVID case. You aren’t sure,” Ashley said. “I’m just very cautious, anyway. I have a 90-year-old mom I help take care of. I have my kids. I just don’t want to be the one to bring it home.”
Even headstone deliveries have been slowed due to delays in granite processing, according to monument companies The Beacon spoke to.
According to Volusia Monument owner Mike Baldauff, much of the granite for monuments comes from Georgia.
“There’s only so many granite workers up there,” he said.
Lockdowns early in the pandemic slowed the supply chain, and while things are picking up, Baldauff said, some monument companies are still feeling the effects.
Despite the challenges, funeral homes are still striving to help families give their loved ones the best send-offs they can.
“That’s the joy that we get out of it,” Ashley said. “People may be sad, or totally broken up, which is natural, but to see them and know you’ve done a good job when they view their loved ones; they’ll cry or smile and say good job. We love doing what we do.”
For Cusack, this is another advantage of living and working in a small town.
“The bigger cities are not finding people to be so gracious, but the community has been understanding of how we have to adjust times and settings and even reduce attendants,” she said. “Everybody’s in the same boat.”
And many families, like the Kellys, are looking forward to the day they can have a long-postponed memorial gathering, including friends and family from across the country who wanted to attend.
Kelly-Thompson longs to rent the Stetson University basketball court and give her father the “enormously, obnoxiously big” send-off her father wanted — and that she and her family need.
3 — The number of COVID-19 vaccines that, as of March 8, have been approved for emergency distribution by the United States Food and Drug Administration
3,550,139 — The number of Floridians who, as of March 7, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine
90,714 — The number of Volusia County residents who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine
1,944,995 — The total number of COVID-19 cases that have occurred in Florida as of March 7, according to the Florida Department of Health
31,683 — The number of deaths as of March 7 among Florida residents, and another 583 among non-residents.
35,159 — The total number of COVID-19 cases that have occurred in Volusia County as of March 7.
677 — The number of Volusia County residents who have died due to COVID-19.