Rita Hammer of Savage had been planning her funeral for almost 15 years by the time she passed away March 23 at the age of 93, right down to the songs and bulletins.
Funerals had become a regular part of her life as she said goodbye to aging friends and family, daughters Joan Rausch of Prior Lake and Margaret Hinke of Eagan said. She spent part of her 90th birthday picking out her casket.
Even Hammer’s best-laid plans couldn’t account for the coronavirus.
“The whole irony is her funeral wasn’t anything like that,” Hinke said. “It was almost express-route.”
Two days after their mother died, Rausch and Hinke, their three sisters and a handful of other family members buried Hammer in Chaska. The family is one of countless others juggling mourning and the uncertainty of a pandemic.
On March 25, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order directing Minnesotans to stay at home in many cases. While funeral homes, crematoriums and cemeteries are allowed to continue work during the order, business is far from usual.
Funerals are limited to no more than 10 people, including any clergy, pallbearers and funeral home staff.
Lindsey Ballard, owner of the Ballard-Sunder Funeral Homes in Prior Lake, Shakopee and Jordan, said state requirements for burials mean spots for friends and families at the gatherings are limited even more. If there’s a casket at a ceremony, a licensed funeral director must be present “regardless of what’s going on with COVID.”
Both Ballard and Joe Schmidt of Shakopee’s McNearney-Schmidt Funeral and Cremation said their staff are used to going above and beyond for families. The gathering restrictions have made it difficult to meet their own standards.
A typical funeral at Schmidt’s facility or in a local church would be around 150 people.
“We’re the bearers of bad news when it comes to enforcing these rules, and we don’t like that position — we know that it’s not easy for the families we’re caring for here,” Ballard said.
“I’d say I’ve seen just about everyone on our staff cry in the last couple weeks. I mean it’s taken a toll on all of us, and we’re just at the start of this.”
The Ballard-Sunder and McNearney-Schmidt facilities now offer livestreaming of smaller family services and sharing them online so friends and family can still have a way to participate .
Aurelio Mendez Jr., 41, of Shakopee died from cancer on March 19. His wife, Maria Garcia, said livestreaming his funeral at McNearney-Schmidt allowed her family to grieve with distant family, friends and the community that loved him. She said the record was an invaluable gift that will eventually help her share the day with her youngest son, who’s 2.
“It’s certainly not a personalized hug or handshake, but just to know that they’re getting some response from their friends via technology is still something,” Schmidt said.
Mourning in isolation
There’s no real replacement for the healing experience of a physical gathering, families and funeral directors said.
April will mark the fourth anniversary of the death of Rausch’s husband, Mark. Rausch said her experiences with her mother and husband’s funerals were like night and day.
“At my husband’s funeral there was just so much family togetherness with the cards and the food and people wanting to be around you, supporting you and hugging you,” Rausch said.
Carol Stamson of Savage echoed the loneliness of mourning during the pandemic. Her father, Sylvester Wacker, died at 92 on March 19. Wacker had nine siblings, seven children, 43 grandchildren and great-grandchildren and “seemed to know almost everyone” in the Jordan and Savage area, Stamson said.
McNearny-Schmidt helped the Wacker family come up with a staggered visitation plan for his surviving siblings and his grandkids and a small prayer service graveside with his children and their spouses.
“I feel like the hardest thing is not being able to gather as a family to support each other, share stories and grieve together,” Stamson said. “It feels like we have all been left to deal with the loss separately.”
Stamson said her family is working with McNearney to plan a full mass and celebration worthy of her father on his birthday in August.
Schmidt said he’s trying to convey to families that it won’t always be this way.
“They’re going to come,” Schmidt said. “Your friends, your family, they’re going to be there for you. If they were going to come now, they’re certainly going to be there for you later.”
An industry at risk
Ballard said she’s keeping in touch with national organizations like the National Funeral Directors Association and the Cremation Association of North America, which she serves on as a board member, to stay up to date on the best practices for today’s situation.
“We’re taking this very seriously and being very respectful,” Ballard said. “Every time we’re out in public at these services, we’re putting ourselves at risk interacting with people and we’re putting our families who we come home to at risk.”
A common theme during her discussions with other funeral service providers is the need for greater personal protective equipment. Mortuary services already require a standard level of protective gear like face masks.
As health care facilities and departments across the country buy up more and more equipment to protect providers on the front line, funeral directors are having a hard time getting supplies to meet added protection standards.
“When they are available they’re going to doctors and nurses first as they should be but there’s other people who need them too,” Ballard said. “I think we’ll kind of be an afterthought on that.”