Now and later: A time for remembrance

Pandemic leads to private funerals now, public memorial services later

John Kubal, The Brookings Register
Posted 5/6/20

BROOKINGS – As the coronavirus pandemic brings the nation death in unprecedented numbers, funeral directors are working with families to ensure that their loved ones will be remembered and honored, later sometimes but for now often in a less than traditional fashion.

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Now and later: A time for remembrance

Pandemic leads to private funerals now, public memorial services later


BROOKINGS – As the coronavirus pandemic brings the nation death in unprecedented numbers, funeral directors are working with families to ensure that their loved ones will be remembered and honored, later sometimes but for now often in a less than traditional fashion. 

The Brookings Register recently spoke with two local funeral directors – Nic Polly, funeral director at Rude’s Funeral Home & Cremation Services, and Mitch Steinhoff, manager, employee owner, funeral director of Eidsness Funeral and Cremation Services – about the changes and challenges they are facing today.

“In most cases we are having a small family funeral or graveside service with the immediate family,” Polly explained. “Once this health crisis clears up, we are offering the family a second service without charge for extended family and friends to gather for a large-scale celebration of the person’s life.”

He did note that Rude’s does more cremations than traditional burials; but he doesn’t tie that to the coronavirus pandemic: “I would say a little bit, but it hasn’t deterred everybody from having a traditional burial.  A few families have elected for cremation of their loved one in order to have a memorial service down the road. But it hasn’t necessarily been a major happening because of (the pandemic).”

A seasonal factor, also not tied to the pandemic, is that more people die during the colder months. 

“You know I don’t know if there is a study out there that specifically shows that, but I would agree with that statement,” Polly said. “We tend to be busier from mid-October through March and April. Summers tend to back off a little bit.

“I would say with the elderly I attribute that to the weather. The folks in the nursing homes, you know, when they look out the window, they don’t see the spring skies and the green grass and things like that.  It can be a hard time when they are kept inside and it can play with their emotions.”  

Stringent protective measures 

While funeral directors are always taking measures to protect themselves when they’re embalming and working with human remains, they now also have to ensure that the people they deal with when making funeral arrangements are protected against the coronavirus. 

“We are taking more steps whenever people come in here, whether it is for planning a memorial service or making funeral arrangements,” Polly said. “When we are finished with that, we make sure we go around and wipe down every surface that somebody touched.

“Our biggest goal, more than anything, is that we certainly don’t want to become a hot spot per se. We don’t want the coronavirus or any other illness to be spread around. 

“Our job philosophy is just to make sure we always have a clean, well-cared for facility so that people don’t come in here worrying about leaving with or catching the coronavirus or the flu in general.

“Just like everybody else we have hand sanitizer available for everybody that walks in and we encourage everybody to use it so they have clean hands.

“We always maintain a clean facility. We take day-to-day care of our facility. With the remains, we rely heavily on hospital and nursing home staff to tell us if we need to take special care precautions with people who have passed away.”

As to getting necessary supplies at a time when the coronavirus is bringing death in large numbers across the country with an obvious increase in the number of funerals, Polly said Rude’s hasn’t encountered difficulty getting embalming fluids; however, personal protective gear has posed some challenges.

“Just like everybody, whether it’s the health care field or other fields, personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, these are the items that are hard to get ahold of, even for us,” he explained. “Fortunately, we are sitting in a comfortable spot as far as personal protective equipment. We are considered an essential service, so we can reach out to the state of South Dakota if we get into a greater need for self-protective equipment.”

In ‘uncharted territory’

When he spoke with the Register last week, Mitch Steinhoff, manager/employee owner of Eidsness Funeral and Cremation Services, said they had probably had about 10 to 12 deaths since the pandemic started, “and every case has been just a little bit different. We’re offering the families different options.”

In keeping with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Eidsness has been trying to stay with 10 people or less for “an actual indoor funeral.”

“We’ve been trying to stick to that as close as we can,” Steinhoff said. “That’s Immediate family. Sometimes that’s difficult when there’s four or five children involved; and then you’ve got spouses and grandchildren that want to come. That’s been a little bit of an issue for us.”

Also offered is live-stream screening or putting a video recording on their website for people to view. Memorial service handouts that would normally be handed out at funerals are being put on the Eidsness website. Finally, families are being offered an additional service in the future at a time when friends and family could gather.

“We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet,” Steinhoff explained, “whether families want to do an actual memorial service or a couple hours of memorial visitation at the funeral home so people can come and share their stories and memories. That’s our hope.

“Our fear is if this goes on too long, three months, four months or whatever before groups can gather again, are we just ripping that Band-Aid back off as far as grieving is concerned?” Steinhoff asked. “They have gone through grieving and they are moving on just a little bit and now they are going to open this all up again, the raw emotions of it and it will be back.  I don’t know how that is going to play out.

“I hope that is going to be beneficial for families; but with everything else in the world, this is uncharted territory: what will be beneficial and what will not be. Grief still happens, No. 1, and if we don’t offer them some way to get through the grief, we are going to have more problems.”

 Steinhoff noted with the coming of nicer weather they are doing some graveside services: “We can really spread out. We are not in the building. We have a wide-open area. The grandkids can come along as well.” 

However, the actual viewing process still poses a problem, because it’s hard to do that outside. So all-day viewing can be done at the funeral home, with a schedule set up to ensure that no more than 10 people are present at one time.

“We are trying to do all we can under the circumstances,” Steinhoff  said.

Regarding whether families choose burial or cremation, he has seen some surprising numbers. “Typicaly our numbers are 40% to 45% typically choosing cremation at some point, whether that is right away or after the funeral.

“It has kind of been interesting. Since this has started, we are more like 20% cremation and 80% traditional funeral.  And I am not saying it is because of COVID-19.”

He likens it to not being able to go to church: “When you can’t do something, you want it even more. People are understanding the importance, I think, of gathering and getting together and grieving.  So, when we can’t do it, we all want it.”

Steinhoff said he and the Eidsness staff thought “cremation would be more popular because of the circumstances. You can have a funeral service with the cremated remains.”

One factor he noted was that Eidsness “had a couple deaths where the people died in the hospital alone. There was nobody who could be there with them in the room in this process. They couldn’t say goodbye, couldn’t hug them, couldn’t be with them.

“This is one way they can still say goodbye and have that last farewell with their loved one before the grieving process starts. This process is a way to say goodbye to their loved ones.”

‘A crazy time for us’

Like Rude’s, Eidsness is taking self-protective measures that have been universal throughout the funeral service industry. But add to that additional measures taken during the pandemic.

“We treat every body as if it could have a contagious disease,” Steinhoff explained. “That is how we have been trained and taught. That process hasn’t changed a lot for us.

“What has changed is that every time we go to a hospital or nursing home, removal itself has become more protective meaning masks and gloves.” If the person had died from COVID-19, then protective clothing would also be worn.

Protocol at the funeral home has also changed. Door handles are being sanitized; hand sanitizer is available; guest books are not out to be signed; there is no hand-to-hand contact; and folders can be picked up by those who want to take one, but they are not handed out.

“It’s a crazy time for us,” Steinhoff said. “It’s hard to be sensitive, it’s hard to go into a nursing home. You go in there all dressed up with this protective gear.”

He added that such protective measures were needed, “because we can’t afford to lose a person to quarantine for 14 days. When you only have two funeral directors, you have to rely on the other person pretty heavily. It would be tough for one of us to go into quarantine for 14 days.”  

Steinhoff said they had a large supply of gloves and masks and at least five months of equipment and supplies before re-ordering would be necessary.

“I hope this will all be taken care of before that happens,” he added.

Like Rude’s, Eidsness also sees more deaths during colder weather.

“Oh, for sure,” Steinhoff said. “Our busiest months are November to March.

“Some of it has to do with, I think, people try to make it to Christmas and the beauty of the season gives them the will to live. Again, there is no scientific study.

“I think we see a lot of influenza A and influenza B, pneumonia-type deaths in the nursing homes. If influenza A or B gets into a nursing home, it is tough for them to come out of that sometimes. We see a lot more deaths in the winter because of the flu season itself.”

“I know it’s a difficult time for people to go through this,” he said of the present pandemic. “I know this COVID-19 is scary for all of us; but as soon as you lose a loved one, all you want to do is grieve in the current matter. And now the world is saying COVID-19 is more important than your grief. 

“I don’t know how we get around that. I understand we don’t want to put anybody at risk; but there definitely will come a period when there will be some ramifications from all of this for the families that are grieving in a different way as a society than we ever have.”

“We ask the people of Brookings just to be patient,” Polly said. “People have lost family and close friends over the past few weeks and they want nothing more than to be part of celebrating that friend’s or family member’s life. 

“We are sorry they can’t do it right now, but as soon as the coronavirus pandemic settles down, we are certainly going to do everything we can so that everybody whose life has been lost over the last few months to make sure they are celebrated and that everybody can be a part of that.”

Contact John Kubal at