Fairmount director concerned limits delay grief
David Ittner, CEO of Fairmount Memorial Association, oversees 330 acres of cemeteries including Fairmount, Greenwood, Woodlawn, Riverside, Pines, Pines South and Spokane Memorial Gardens, plus the Heritage Funeral Home. The association also owns Pacific Northwest Cremation.
The cemeteries are also sites of events. Greenwood's Easter Sunrise Service was cancelled but they recorded the message for social media. Fairmount, Greenwood and Riverside hold Memorial Day activities that have included a car show, concerts and a walk through flag-lined roads. This year, those events were cancelled and American Legion Riders led a caravan of cars through the flag-lined roads.
David said Fairmount Memorial Association has handled the majority of the more than 30 COVID-19 deaths in Spokane County, with both cremations and burials.
"We learned early that the risk of staff getting infected by working with people who died of COVID-19 was low, but our staff use PPE, such as face masks and gloves," he said. "Aware of the danger of the virus, they have been cautious."
When a family loses a loved one, it is often the worst day of their lives, but now there is added stress with the pandemic meaning services are limited to immediate family, limiting their ability to celebrate the loved one's life and say goodbye, he said.
"People are unable to begin the grieving process the way they want or need to," he said. "Our task within restrictions is to provide the family a meaningful experience, learning about them by meeting on Zoom, a video conference or phone.
David has learned two things: 1) It is important to have a service to celebrate a person's life, and not doing that short changes families and impedes their grieving process. 2) The number of deaths because of COVID-19 has brought to mind the need for people to discuss their mortality, so Fairmount has had more people call or come to do pre-planning to save family members from making decisions after a death.
David said that over the last 30 years, more people choose cremation. While nationally 50 to 55 percent choose it, in Washington, more than 75 percent choose it.
"There seems to be a correlation between choosing cremation and the decline in religious affiliation. Some choose it because they want simplicity and want to save costs," he said.
"People shy away from conversing about mortality, and discussing burial or cremation, so more choose cremation because they perceive it as easy and quick. Many of them are less likely to have a service," he said.
Cremation still involves choices of how to memorialize a person. Some keep an urn of ashes, some bury the urn or put it in a niche at the cemetery.
David's path to the funeral industry was through landscaping. After earning a degree at Washington State University in crop science and turf management, he was assistant grounds superintendent at the Spokane Country Club. Then he was offered the opportunity to be grounds superintendent at Fairmount in 2003 and transitioned through different roles to become CEO, learning in the process what it takes to run a nonprofit cemetery that is like "a little city" with roads, grounds, monuments and buildings to maintain.
With COVID-19, most services are at the gravesides, so David said it is particularly important to provide a nicely landscaped setting.
Fairmount is also using a service called One Room that allows it to livestream services for those who cannot come.
Because of his faith as a Christian, David said he believes it is important to create a good working environment for his staff.
"If our employees are thriving, their natural empathy and abilities will shine through, and they will take better care of the people we serve," he said.
"From diving into God's Word, I believe our role is to serve others, love others and put others' interests before our own, along with loving God with all our heart," he said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2020