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Funeral homes have been changed by the coronavirus. Here’s what it’s like to work in one.



The Hellum Funeral Home has offered a drive-thru memorial service for decades. The idea, first germinated during a 1980 remodeling after a fire, was to give the people of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the opportunity for a kitschy viewing service — a slow parade of cars peeling through the parking lot to pay their respects without ever leaving the vehicle. To that end, they installed a big rectangle window peering out from the home’s back wall and a cubby big enough to hold a casket. Wendy Hellum, the owner of the facility, tells me that people almost never took advantage of the service. Now, in the middle of a pandemic and statewide limitations on gatherings, she’d guess that drive-thru funerals are 90 percent of her business.

Hellum Funeral Home can still hold in-person ceremonies. But under Tennessee policy, the number of attendees needs to be restricted to 10 or fewer. For now, it is simply more efficient, and more communal, to summon a cavalcade of friends and family, each individually sheltered by their own sedans and SUVs, to send off a loved one with as many witnesses as possible. Hellum holds up her end of the bargain; her employees hand out bookmarks and programs to each car. They sign each attendee’s name in the guest book. They wear masks emblazoned with the funeral home logo. It was difficult to imagine the mechanics of an automated memorial service three months ago, but Hellum generated a socially distant workaround at a remarkable pace.

Wendy Hellum believes that someday, things will go back to normal. But she also expects that the realities of drive-thru funerals will stick around for months, not weeks. It is heartening, she says, to watch her clients honor the departed as best they can, considering the circumstances, but she feels awful that they aren’t able to mourn together. Elbow-bumping at a funeral just isn’t the same. Read our conversation below.

When did you start noticing the pandemic affecting your business?

When the state started closing down stuff with social distancing and everything [on April 2.] That’s when it all started for me. We didn’t have to cancel anybody coming in, but now we’re having 10 people show up at a time. People are coming and going, one batch at a time.

How did you end up with a funeral home with a drive-thru window?

We had a fire, and we rebuilt in 1980. So we put a window in, and we didn’t really use it until now. But now it works out perfectly. My employee brought it to my attention, like, “We can start using this drive-thru window now!” I said, “Yeah, this is the perfect time.” As soon as we started shutting down, that’s when we started it up.

How do all these proceedings work?

I have the window open, and we have the remains in there, which you can see as the bereaved drive through. We put flowers on top of the casket. People never have to come out in the cars. I have people out there signing register forms. We have family members greeting people while they’re coming through. It really fits the bill.

And you have employees signing the register books and everything?

Yeah, they have the register books. We’ll have a girl writing everyone’s name down in them. And we have programs. We’ll have someone handing out the programs and bookmarks [through the car windows.]

I would imagine that your employees are all stocked up in PPE during these ceremonies.

Yes, masks on, gloves on. I got someone to make the masks. They’ve all got our funeral home logo on it, so everybody knows. I want the family members to be safe as well as us.

How appreciative have people been that you’ve found a way to stay open despite the circumstances?

They’ve been very appreciative. I’m glad we can give people some sort of closure. Especially in these times.

Have you guys changed any of your sanitation policies when it comes to prepping bodies during this pandemic?

We’ve only had three Covid cases. But we’ve still been busy. I’ve always felt that anyone that comes in contact with a body should be taking precautions anyway. But it’s doubled now. We’re especially careful. More bleach, more hand sanitizer, more wipes.

For the clients you’re serving, do they expect this to be the only funeral they have for the deceased? Or do they expect to have a more formal ceremony when people can gather again?

I’ve never had anyone say that, but I’ve offered it to them. That we could hold it later, free of charge, if they’re still grieving. But this is the new normal. And I think everybody has to get used to it. Either way, I’ve offered it to them. So whatever they want to do is fine.

So it’s started to dawn on you that this is going to be the way you’ll be forced to do things for a long time.

Yeah, I say that we’ll be doing this for a long time, but eventually things will go back to normal. But for now, everything has been canceled; everything has changed.

Have you felt any more pride in your work right now, given how important it is that your business stays open during this time?

Yeah, I feel bad for my clients because they can’t grieve in the traditional way. Our community is a hands-on, touchy-feely, kissy-huggy place. We love on each other. Now we’re just bumping and dapping.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained



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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year



From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.


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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube



Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.


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