Cremation Society of Minnesota: Cremate and wait: How COVID-19 is changing the way funeral homes do the business of life and death

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Over the past week, the obituary pages of area newspapers have become a haunting litany of “memorial service to be held at a later date,” “no services,” and “services canceled due to COVID-19.” To be sure, death and impending pandemic doom may be our new daily communion, but for funeral directors dealing with the day-to-day nuts and bolts business of life and death, the coronavirus and social distancing era has changed the way they help people grieve, and how funeral homes host celebrations of life.

“Like everything else, they’re delaying it, which has increased cremations. With traditional services, people are so used to doing things within a matter of a few days, and usually that’s the way it happens — if somebody were to die on a Monday, the funeral would be on Thursday or Friday, so they’re disappointed they can’t do that, but they’re better off waiting. It just so happens that this death occurred at a terrible time. It never happens at a good time, but this is such a fluke thing, even [mourners] have to abide by it.”

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” said Jason Bradshaw of Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services.

“We’ve had a number of families who have postponed services to a later date. Maybe they had something scheduled this week or next week, and now they’re moving it to July or August. Some have canceled altogether and said they’ll figure things out when things settle down.

“Some have wanted to do something right now, and those have been challenging because that’s where you want to service the family and take care of them the best way possible, but still be compliant with what the directives are from the Minnesota Department of Health. We’re still doing some very small services with family only, oftentimes 10 people or less, obviously. And we can actually webcast the service and people have been able to watch as the service is going on, and it’s been neat because people write comments in as the service is happening. But the families have been very understanding, and there’s been this real feeling of ‘We’re all in this together.’”

“Right now it’s a little strange, because in the last week we’ve had some services that were planned and were canceled or postponed,” said Brett Tieman, funeral director at Gill Brothers Funeral Service & Cremation in south Minneapolis. “We’re trying to follow the CDC and Department of Health guidelines of [gatherings of] less than 30 and no more than 10, and if it’s a person in a vulnerable age group, which is over 65 and which is most people who attend funerals … it’s hard right now to do some services.

“We’re only about a week into this [shutdown], and for the most part families have made the call. They don’t want to put that obligation on other people to come to a funeral service, especially if it’s not recommended. [Another obstacle has been] coordinating with churches and cemeteries, if they’re going to remain open, and regular businesses being closed.”

While the funeral professionals interviewed for this story extolled the powers of technology and live-streaming to make a small event feel bigger, all stressed how important it is for survivors to hold some kind of a ceremony in order to process and grieve properly. Which is why cremation-and-wait is seen as a wise way to go.   

“I still service at-need families; those are families that have had a death and need to make those final arrangements, whether it’s cremation or burial. If it is a burial and an open casket visitation, we can push that out even two months, with embalming,” said Derek Glenna, owner of Summit Funeral and Cremation in Inver Grove Heights.  “And many times with cremation, people plan a celebration of life or memorial for several months or a year later. That’s pretty common, anyway.

“I had a church funeral this past Saturday, and we had about 60 people attending the funeral and we live-streamed it for folks that weren’t going to be able to be there. We had people spaced in the standard social distancing situation, and hand sanitizers at about every doorway and all over the place, and we had signs that said, ‘Please refrain from hugging and shaking hands.’ We really made sure that, as a funeral home, we kept everyone safe.

“But from a business perspective, nothing has changed. In the funeral profession, we have a recession-proof job. People are dying every day, and we have to keep treating every decedent with our normal infectious control [protocol] that we’re taught, with personal protective equipment, like anyone else in health care. The only thing that’s changed for us is that we need to keep attendance under 10 people.”

What’s more, an uptick in people contacting their neighborhood funeral director about pre-planning and paying for their own future funerals suggests that people are planning ahead and getting their things in order.

“I have done some pre-arrangements and pre-planning over the phone or mail, with families who are maybe older,” said Glenna. “I just tell folks it’s a reality check. Our days our numbered. I’m a Christian, and I believe in that, and we don’t know when our time on this earth is done, but this is a reality check. This COVID-19 is killing people, and I don’t know if that’s why there’s been an influx of people calling me to pre-plan and pre-pay for their services, but I’ve had several calls in the last days, so I’m wondering if older people are scared and thinking, ‘This is out there and it can kill people.’

"The biggest thing is that we’re in the people business, and we want to help people, and I prefer doing that in person. So for me to have to tell families we shouldn’t meet in person, that’s hard, because I love sitting down and meeting with families and learning more about them and their history, and that’s hard not to be able to do that now.”  

“We have the option of postponement with cremation,” said Shannon Asmus, supervisor at Choice Cremation. “When a family comes to us, we have a cremation protocol: We make sure that when we go to the hospital and transfer the care of the deceased from the institution to us and we bring the body back to us. Then we have the family come in for a family viewing so they can spend time with their loved one. We arrange for the cremation, and then we know the value of having that service, we know the value of having that public expression of grief, and so we talk about what we can do and what we can’t do today. We know that some services are being postponed because of the situation that the country is in, but we know that we’ll be able to go back and have those services for those families.

“As a funeral professional in the industry for the last 30 years, we understand that we are the frontline of defense for many different diseases that have come into our existence over the years. I could name all the epidemics. We know how to handle that situation, with the family and the body. Now, we’re comfortable, but we want to make sure the families we’re serving are comfortable; we want to make sure they know that we can make arrangements over the phone, we can do things differently today than we’ve ever been able to do, online.”

Funeral professionals may deal with the big existential questions every day, and not just during global existential crises, but that doesn’t mean they’re not like the rest of us.

“I haven’t gone through anything like this,” said Tieman, of the pandemic. “It’s an anxious feeling. Anxiety, that’s the main thing. You don’t know what’s going to come next, what the next shoe to drop will be.”

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