From pharmacies to fast food, the drive-thru has become a ubiquitous part of American life.
More recently, it is finding its way into the nation’s deaths as well.
Lines of vehicles that once crept along the highway in a funeral procession now are going no farther than the mortuary parking lot as mourners pay their respects from behind the wheel rather than from inside the building.
“I’ve been thinking about it for 30 years,” said Roger DeCarbo, whose Cunningham Avenue funeral home last week hosted what may have been New Castle’s first-ever drive-thru visitation.
“This wasn’t a fly-by decision on our part. We didn’t just make this up. We’ve always had the capability.
“This started decades ago, and that’s when I said, ‘We could do this.’ It just wasn’t time yet.”
That time arrived with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and pursuant government mandates that restricted gatherings to a mere handful of people.
The situation made things particularly tough on funeral homes and the families they serve, who often expect dozens, if not hundreds, of people stopping in to bid farewell to a beloved relative or friend.
Turning those people away was something Stacey Mastren struggled with when her husband, 42-year-old Robert “Bobby” Mastren, passed away April 30.
“He was loved by so many, he did so much for so many people and cared about so many people,” Stacey Mastren said. “I know people would have that hole. There’d be something missing if they didn’t get to say good-bye. I wanted to give people that opportunity.”
It was DeCarbo — himself a family friend — who suggested to her the idea of a drive-thru visitation.
“At first I thought, ‘Hmm, I don’t know’ and I did think about it for a little bit,” Stacey said, “but it was just a good way for everyone to say good-bye to Bobby.
“We talked about it as a family, and knowing Bobby like we know Bobby, we knew it was something that he would be OK with. And they were OK with it. That’s why we went ahead with it.”
Prior to the drive-thru farewell, the family was able to have its own private visitation and blessing service inside the funeral home. For the public viewing, the casket was placed just inside the front entrance of the funeral home, and DeCarbo erected a Plexiglass shield to protect it from the elements. He provided someone to sign the register book for visitors so that no sanitizing of pens would be required.
Cars entered the parking lot from Cunningham Avenue — the funeral home is located across the street and half a block east from Taggart Stadium — and drove up to the front entrance, where occupants of each vehicle could spend a few moments in silent reflection, say a prayer, or talk to Stacey and other members of Bobby Mastren’s family. The cars then exited at the Lutton Street end of the drive.
“They could stop and say a prayer, they could do whatever they wanted. I spoke to every car,” said Stacey, who added that her husband’s death was not caused by COVID-19.
DeCarbo estimated that 55 to 60 cars came through during the three-hour visitation, and since there were never more than 12 at one time, traffic control did not pose a problem.
Stacey added that she was not concerned about what passers-by might think of the unusual arrangement.
“It was for Bobby,” she said. “I knew he would approve, and I wanted to do it for him.”
Both she and DeCarbo, though, realized that it was for those who took the time to drive through as well.
“Someone told me that they were very grateful that they were able to pay their last respects and say good-bye,” Stacey said. “In my heart, that made me feel good that I was able to do that for other people.”
DeCarbo felt the same. After the visitation, he spoke with a family member who had stayed near the casket but who could hear conversations that were taking place in the driveway.
“I asked her after the fact, because I wanted to know, ‘What did people say?’” DeCarbo said. “She said, ‘It’s nice I got to see Bobby. It’s nice I got to see Bobby.’ That was the most common comment that people made. That made me feel comfortable.”
PAST AND FUTURE
Herschel Thornton opened the nation’s first drive-thru funeral home in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1968, according to the still-existing mortuary’s website. The facility featured five, six-foot long windows behind each of which a casket could be placed. Next to each window was a drop box that could be used for condolence cards or for signing the register.
The idea, Thornton said at the time, was “to accommodate the needs of elderly guests who were unable to walk into the funeral home, and also to allow for after-hours viewings.”
Though seemingly logical, the practice never became pervasive throughout the industry. Now, though, the coronavirus has sparked renewed interest in the idea, and there may be more drive-thru visitations to come locally.
Todd Mojock, a funeral director with Noga Funeral Home, said the facility had yet to receive such a request.
Attempts to reach a spokesman for the Ed and Don DeCarbo Funeral Home were unsuccessful, but an obituary published in the New Castle News for a man who died April 22 noted that the deceased “would appreciate a farewell honk on the horn in a Drive-By Memorial” at a designated time.
Jordan Flaim, a funeral director at the R. Cunningham Funeral Home and Crematory Inc., reported that the business had not yet been asked to do drive-thru arrangements, although one family had posted a memorial photo of its loved one under one of the building’s overhangs and spent time in the parking lot — masked up and observing social distancing — to talk and share memories.
But, he added, the funeral home stands ready if approached.
“We have considered and support the idea,” he said. “We are ready for it if the opportunity presents itself. We have a plan in place as to where and how we would do it.”
Similarly, Roger DeCarbo said he would recreate the event should another family desire it, and Stacey Mastren would encourage people to consider it.
“I would say it’s a personal preference,” she said. “If you feel that the person who died would approve of something like that, or if in your heart you feel you need to do something so that people can come and say good-bye, I think it’s a great idea, especially in times like now.”