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Moloney’s Family Funeral Homes

Moloney’s Funeral Homes are advertising a motorcycle-based farewell ride through town for the recently passed. Photo from Moloney Funeral Homes Facebook

Carla Sciara’s father, former Port Jefferson Station resident Ronald “Ronnie” Scalone, passed away March 17 after a long illness, one unrelated to the escalating coronavirus pandemic. 

“It just added to the grief of it all.”

— Carla Sciara

Scalone was a past aeronautical engineer at Grumman, and lived a life bound to nature and the Long Island Sound. In Sciara’s father’s final days, he was living in the Patchogue-based Suffolk Center for Rehabilitation, a nursing home that had decided to close most access to visitors, their residents being especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Sciara was one of the few people the staff allowed in to visit during her father’s final hours. She walked through halls mostly devoid of the normal family members strolling the halls, with nursing home staff all garbed in masks and gloves. Amidst all the pain and suffering of losing her father, she said dealing with the panic and stress of a pandemic was like “grieving twice.”

For people looking to mourn and memorialize the recently passed, the ongoing coronavirus crisis has upended everything. Places of worship of every denomination far and wide have limited their public services, and with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines having limited the number of people in a room at once, services for the recently passed have become small, solemn affairs.

Sciara had worked with Robertaccio Funeral Home in Patchogue, who she called “amazing” for their work with her father’s cremation, and Infant Jesus R.C. Church in Port Jefferson for either a Mass and funeral arrangements, but she decided to hold off, knowing family who live as far away as Florida shouldn’t be traveling during the ongoing pandemic. She has plans to celebrate his life sometime in the future, after the end of the panic, though it’s hard to say when that will be.

“It just added to the grief of it all,” she said. “We wanted to celebrate his life.”

Beyond the fear and the tragedy of the more than 200 people in Suffolk County who have died from the virus, the act of mourning has become limited. Funeral homes throughout the North Shore have limited the number of people who can be at a service at a time and have looked to offer people as much ability to grieve as they can.

The March 22 executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called funeral homes essential businesses, but houses of worship, where many services are held, were not. Not only that, but CDC guidelines advise limiting such occasions to 10 or less people.

“This isn’t what the community wants — this is something that is forced upon us.”

— Peter Moloney

Funeral Homes like M.A. Connell in Huntington Station have severely limited the number of services they host, with arrangements being made by only two or less people or done via phone or email. Services are limited to 10 people or less and to one hour. Only one service is allowed at a time.

Peter Moloney, along with his brother Daniel Moloney Jr., owns Moloney Family Funeral Homes, with eight locations on Long Island including Port Jefferson Station, Lake Ronkonkoma and Hauppauge. The challenge has been allowing people the room to grieve when there are limits on how many people can be in the same place at once.

“This isn’t what the community wants — this is something that is forced upon us,” Moloney said. “The families still need to grieve.”

Moloney’s has established tents at some of their locations for families to hold ceremonies outside. While their website lists a maximum of 10 mourners for each gathering, he said he wouldn’t simply deny a family if they wished to bring in around 20, but the goal is to limit the number of people in the same space. Otherwise, they are providing access for families to listen to the prayers via online streaming. They are also offering alternative services such as a motorcycle-based farewell ride through town.

The facilities are also being sanitized regularly after every service. But the hardest part of these services in the time of a pandemic is watching people necessarily stay apart. Even in tight-knit groups, friends and family not living in the same house often try to keep apart, even when the inclination is to hold each other in times of grief.

“A lot of these people are passing away alone, so it’s really doubly troubling for families and emotional,” Moloney said. “People are keeping their spacing.”

Paul Vigliante, who owns Branch Funeral Homes in Miller Place and Smithtown along with his family, said his locations too have been limited in the number of people who can attend services. These, he added, have been for the most part limited to one a day. They have also set up live streaming of the services through Zoom for extended family and friends, which “has worked well so far.”

Vigliante said they have cleaning staff on hand seven days a week and have worked not just to protect the people coming to grieve but staff as well. The owners have also encouraged mourners to stay six feet apart from each other, even in the chapel.

“It’s a truly heartbreaking time,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can to allow families that time to grieve … It’s very difficult. It’s unfortunate the circumstances we’re living through.”

Despite the hardship of putting off a full service for her father, Sciara still marveled at the work and professionalism of everyone she’s interacted with, from the staff at the nursing home to the funeral home to the church. 

“They were willing to do whatever we wanted to do,” she said. “It’s brought out a whole lot of good. It’s incredible how people are still coming together.”

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Kota, a therapy dog used to comfort patrons at Moloney’s Family Funeral Homes, owned by Peter Moloney, pictured with daughter Erin Moloney, who rescued Kota while in Arkansas. Photo by Chris Mellides

By Chris Mellides

Joined by his closest family, an elderly man sits amid a solemn ceremony, overcome with sadness over the loss of his wife of 72 years.

The 94-year-old World War II veteran pauses during service at the Moloney Funeral Homes’ Center Moriches location long enough to spot a Labrador-Weimaraner mix named Kota, who slowly approaches him.

Peter Moloney, owner of the funeral homes and Kota’s personal handler, gives the grieving man a treat for Kota, which the docile dog gladly accepts before gently resting his head in the man’s lap.

“The man came into the funeral home with his family and his daughter and he was brokenhearted at the loss of his wife,” Moloney said. “Kota provided him with a sense of comfort and he was very appreciative.”

Kota, a therapy dog used to comfort patrons at Moloney’s Family Funeral Homes. Photo by Chris Mellides

The owner explained the thought process behind having Kota on-hand in the right situations.

“Pets are known to reduce stress and anxiety and take people to another dimension in the grief process,” he said.

Moloney’s daughter, Erin, rescued the dog while she was studying at the University of Arkansas, and when Kota was introduced to the family one Thanksgiving Erin’s father knew that Kota would be a perfect candidate as a therapy dog.

Aptly nicknamed “Kota the Comfort Dog,” the young canine travels with Moloney wherever he is needed and has made appearances with his owner across all seven family run funeral homes located throughout Suffolk County, including in Port Jefferson Station.

“He’s a wonderful companion and he’s provided tremendous comfort to families that have encountered him that have a fondness for pets,” Moloney said. “He’s not for everybody, and I would never introduce him to a family without at least having some type of conversation surrounding pets and animals. We would not want to invade someone’s privacy [who] perhaps was afraid.”

While Kota is currently the only certified therapy dog to be used for support in funeral homes on Long Island, according to Moloney, dogs like him have long since been used for similar purposes.

Therapy dogs have been implemented for those in need of comfort as far back as the 1700s, primarily for those people suffering from mental health problems, said Mary Burch, American Kennel Club spokesperson and director of the Canine Good Citizen program, which is used as a prerequisite for many groups that use therapy dogs.

“In the 1970s there were several large organizations that registered therapy dogs and currently, there are hundreds of organizations across the country that register therapy animals,” Burch said.

The AKC spokesperson said facilities tend to contact therapy dog organizations that have “tested dogs and determined where they are best placed.”

A quiet toy breed might be better utilized in a hospital setting where it can be placed on a bed, while larger sporting breeds might do well in a residential program for teenage boys, according to Burch.

“He loves to be petted and he’s very obedient. So, with those characteristics, I felt that he was a very good candidate to assist families within our funeral homes in providing comfort.”

— Peter Moloney

“In a funeral home, a dog would be needed that can provide comfort while remaining under control in this quiet setting where people are upset and in emotional pain,” she said.

Moloney said he saw the success funeral homes throughout the country have had when employing therapy dogs and that a friend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, used a grief therapy dog with triumphant results, so Moloney thought he’d try to do the same on Long Island.

Kota is certified through Sublime K9 Dog Training, a Wantagh-based organization that among other things, provides dog obedience training and therapy dog services.

“He’s been certified and has passed the test, an obedience test, and needs to be calmer in crowds and he’s passed all of those requirements,” Moloney said. “Kota gets groomed on a regular basis so he’s clean and he’s very well maintained and he has all of his shots. We keep him up to date of course.”

Anne Moyer, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, said while more conventional forms of therapy generally involve interaction with a skilled professional, there is evidence suggesting animal interaction can be beneficial.

“Animals are considered useful as facilitators because they create a sense of safety, perhaps because they are nonjudgmental and do not require verbal interactions to connect with,” Moyer said. “Humans form emotional bonds and attachments to animals and these can be therapeutic.”

Kota has been visiting Moloney Family Funeral Homes where he has provided comfort since February and will typically work with families for 20 minutes at a time. Moloney said he is confident his dog will become a fixture at his funeral homes for the foreseeable future.

“Some people have aversions to pets so you know we’re very careful with our approach in introducing him to families,” Moloney said. “But he loves to be petted and he’s very obedient. So, with those characteristics, I felt that he was a very good candidate to assist families within our funeral homes in providing comfort.”