Death in the time of COVID-19 requires either a long-range view or creative thinking.
With state restrictions limiting gatherings to 10 people, many families who lose loved ones are choosing to wait it out.
William Downs III, president of Downs-LeSage and Lenroot-Maetzold funeral homes and Cremation Service of Superior, said many of the families have already planned funeral services for their loved ones, but would rather not adapt the services to meet COVID-19 guidelines. They would rather wait until restrictions are lifted.
“We’ve got about 30 funerals now that we’ve arranged that we can’t do,” he said.
Mike Bratley, a funeral director with Bratley-Nelson Funeral Homes and Crematory, said he is seeing a similar pattern. The funeral homes serve families in Solon Springs, Hayward and Spooner.
“They want the hugs, they want to reach out to these people, and the community wants to reach out to these families that are grieving,” he said.
Cremation is the majority of the funeral homes’ business, which allows them to push the services back, Bratley said, but it leaves families on hold.
It will also lead to some busy calendars once larger gatherings are allowed, said Jeff Cushman, owner and funeral director of Downs Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Superior.
“I think everybody’s big concern is that we’re going to have a lot of services coming up once these are lifted and trying to get them all when the families can be together will be difficult,” he said.
Not everyone is waiting, though.
Bill Ellison’s family opted for a drive-thru visitation in the covered entryway of Pilgrim Lutheran Church on April 6.
“We had to think outside the box because this was not going to be a typical funeral,” said Ellison’s daughter, Brenda Winkelaar of Tower, Minnesota.
Ellison had his funeral planned through Downs Funeral Home, including who was going to sing the hymns. The family asked for the outdoor service instead to provide a sense of closure.
“He would love it, because it wasn’t traditional,” Winkelaar said of her father.
It took about an hour and a half for friends to drive past and offer condolences. Family members took turns sitting in the van to warm up while others stood in the covered area.
“It was very nice to see their faces, hear their voices in-person,” Winkelaar said. “It just felt right.”
A graveside drive-thru has been held in Hayward as well, Bratley said. Visitors drove past the family for about 20 minutes, but didn’t stop to talk.
Cushman said he has held staggered services and a staggered Mass at Downs Funeral Home, disinfecting between groups of 10.
Live online streaming is an option for funeral services, as well. The service can be recorded and shared online. Local funeral directors said there hasn’t been a demand for these long-distance options. Families would prefer to gather in-person, Downs said, to be able to see friends and visit with them.
For those who don't want to wait, it means no services or hugs until at least May 26, when Wisconsin’s current Safer at Home extension ends.
“Right now there’s no end date to look forward to,” Bratley said.
Funeral directors said they are there for families no matter what they choose. That includes options for those whose loved ones have died of COVID-19. They aren’t limited to cremation or immediate burial. A funeral home can embalm the body and a safe viewing can be done if they choose, Cushman said.
“Every funeral home can make its own judgement,” Bratley said. “But it’s our understanding, embalming could be done, and done in a safe manner.”
Funeral homes are used to taking universal precautions.
“There are always infectious diseases to be wary of,” Cushman said.
Neither the Solon Springs Funeral Home nor Downs Funeral Home have had a family come to them for a COVID-19 death, directors said. Downs said a Minnesota funeral home utilized Cremation Service of Superior for one confirmed death.
The disease raises an immediate question of protection. Funeral homes are considered essential and personal protective equipment (PPE) is required. With so much PPE being directed to front line workers in health care and harder-hit areas of the country, it’s difficult for local funeral homes to get any.
“I think on the national scale we’re way, way down the line,” Cushman said.
Many of their traditional distributors have little to sell, Downs said. Amazon mask orders have gone unfilled for Cushman.
Local suppliers that have switched production to PPE and sanitizers are appreciated, the funeral directors said. So are businesses with stockpiles of PPE they’re willing to share. Douglas County Emergency Management has been a resource for them.
The biggest message funeral directors had was that they’re available. Office doors may be closed, but phones are on. Families with pre-arrangements are encouraged to call ahead of time to work out a plan. Anyone with questions can call.