Cremation Society of Minnesota: The difficulty of finding closure

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By: Nate Gotlieb

It was a trying March for the family of Clint and Carolyn Schroeder, who spent decades as members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in East Harriet, raising their five children there and each serving as church council president.

Clint died on March 12 at the age of 89, and then, less than two weeks later, Carolyn was hospitalized with COVID-19. Carolyn, 88, survived, but with the pandemic halting travel, the family has had to postpone Clint’s memorial service.

Daughter Lisa Kennedy, who now lives in California, said the family wanted the service to be held at Bethlehem Lutheran, and given her father’s stature as a prominent tax attorney known for innovations in the field of charitable estate planning, she expected lots of well-wishers.

The need to delay the service, Kennedy said, has made grieving harder.

“We haven’t had that closure,” she said. “We’re just so unsure of when that could ever happen.”

For families like the Schroeders, the coronavirus has upended grieving norms and forced them to forgo large funerals and shared meals and to rely on technology like video conferencing or to wait indefinitely to celebrate their loved one’s life.

Faith leaders and funeral directors say it’s hard not being able to comfort bereaved families in ways they know best.

“I think finding closure and solace and comfort in a time when there is no possibility of physical contact is just extremely difficult,” said the Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth of Plymouth Congregational Church in Stevens Square.

“When you lose someone you love, the world forever changes and is altered,” she said, “but when that happens in the midst of everything else being changed and different, it’s just really hard to know what feels OK.”

In-person restrictions

While funeral traditions had changed in recent years, with more families opting to delay memorial services, physical togetherness had remained a constant.

Dan McGraw of Gill Brothers Funeral Chapels, which has a location in Windom, said many families are postponing funerals and memorial services. A few have held graveside funerals or memorial services from funeral homes, he said, but all have been with 10 people or fewer, per an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz.

Families have been understanding about the restrictions but are still upset, said Chris Makowske, president of Lakewood Cemetery, where the number of burials between the start of the pandemic and April 30 has decreased slightly.

Edina-based funeral director Meredith Waterston, whose family operates the Cremation Society of Minnesota, said death during the pandemic has been extra emotional for families.

The hardest part, she said, has been not being able to have physical contact.

In the Jewish community, Hodroff-Epstein’s funeral homes have been filming the casket at the cemetery and rabbis have been conducting services remotely, said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel in East Isles. Synagogues have also held traditional shiva services, which happen in the week after the burial, via livestream instead of in person.

Zimmerman said the first time she wasn’t able to be with a family when the funeral home came to pick up their relative was painful. But she also said bereaved families have found comfort in the digital services and have appreciated hearing stories of their loved ones during the shivas. “People are joining the funeral and shiva who normally wouldn’t,” she said. “There’s a healing in it that’s been really interesting that I would not have predicted.”

Within the substantial immigrant community at Kingfield’s Incarnation Catholic Church, many families are already used to mourning from afar, said the Rev. Kevin McDonough. He’s holding a virtual mass each day and having parishioners call in with their prayers.

The Rev. Mary Pechauer, co-lead pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran, has placed a greater emphasis on checking in with those in mourning.

“There’s this holiness and sacredness about showing up for one another and being present for one another,” Pechauer said. “This pandemic has, I think, clarified that for us and then challenged us to reimagine how can we still show up for one another.”

‘A reason I’m still here’

While Clint Schroeder’s health had been declining in the years before his death, Kennedy said he had still been active and, on March 8, had eaten a lobster dinner at Kincaid’s.

The cause of his death is listed in state records as “natural causes,” Kennedy said. He wasn’t tested for COVID-19.

Three days after the death, Kennedy flew to Minnesota to help her mother, who was grieving her husband of 67 years.

Carolyn Schroeder fell sick shortly after Clint died, and she faltered in subsequent days before landing in the hospital.

With her wishes clear that she did not want to be placed on a ventilator, her children opted for palliative care and prepared for a second major loss. They all said “goodbye,” Kennedy said, and told her it was all right to go.

Instead, Schroeder got better.

“We were quite surprised and happy when she just kept living,” Kennedy said.

On March 27, she was one of the first eight patients transferred to St. Paul’s Bethesda Hospital, which has been dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients. On April 4, she was discharged.

She’s continued to be on the mend at home, Kennedy said.

For the two weeks after Schroeder’s positive test, Kennedy and her daughter, who lives in Minnesota, were forced to quarantine inside their parents’ apartment. Neither got sick, but Kennedy said that it was a difficult period. Her parents’ friends constantly called to offer condolences, but they didn’t know her mother was in the hospital, so she had to keep breaking the news.

“Those two weeks were really, really hard,” she said.

By early May, Kennedy was getting ready to return to California after nearly two months in Minnesota.

fortable leaving, in part, because her mother has started talking to friends on the phone again.

While the family waits for restrictions to be lifted, Kennedy said, Schroeder is planning to make the most of life after her surprising recovery. She wants to visit her daughter Barb, who lives in North Carolina, and she has started talking about a “new normal” and telling people, “There’s a reason I’m still here.”

“There are things that I think she’s feeling good about living for,” Kennedy said.

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