‘The invisible nightmare’: How funeral homes manage amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Published: Apr. 6, 2020 at 8:12 PM CDT
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With the COVID-19 death toll on the rise and the Safer at Home initiative still in place, many families face the harsh reality of mourning a loved one without physical support.

“The whole idea around a funeral, for as long as time has been around, is the gathering of family and friends. And there’s a reason that we’ve always done these things, because it brings support mentally and physically to the survivors. A funeral with no attendees is really sad,” says Roman Ryan, owner of Ryan Funeral Homes.

As family and friends face emotional hardships, Madison-area funeral homes face a new set of challenges: finding a safe way to host funerals, while managing a new set of financial hardships.

“This is kind of like an invisible nightmare,” Ryan tells NBC15 News via a phone interview.

In unprecedented times, funeral directors are turning to technology. Some funeral homes record or live stream memorials, while allowing friends to send condolences virtually.

“We’ve introduced a program called Hugs From Home. So folks are sending in by email and to our website, to the obituary website, nice notes of consolation and support,” says Pete Gunderson, president of Gunderson Funeral Homes. “They know everyone is there to support them too. They’re right with them, it’s just in a different way.”

Both Gunderson and Ryan Funeral Homes have served patients who died from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you cannot contract the virus from a dead body. Still, funeral professionals treat every patient with extra precautions.

“We’re on the same boat as many of the other healthcare professionals. We are on the top tier with FEMA, they haven’t supplied us yet with re-supplies,” Gunderson says via a FaceTime interview, adding his funeral homes only have enough medical equipment to last another month.

Like many businesses, limited funeral services also mean a financial impact.

“We certainly don’t want to charge them for something we haven’t produced, or completed for their family. So we’re getting a portion of what we would normally get,” Ryan says.

Funeral directors say the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything they have ever seen before.

“I never would have guessed myself recommending that families not hug each other at a moment, you know,” Gunderson says. “There’s a good smile, there’s a good kind word, all of those things. But being together is so important, that’s what really makes it difficult today.”

Both Gunderson and Ryan Funeral Homes are currently holding funerals on a limited basis to maintain social distancing. At times the service for one person is performed multiple times, so that several groups of people are able to pay their respect physically.

In addition, both Gunderson Funeral Homes and Ryan Funeral Homes are scheduling delayed funeral services for late summer or early fall. That way, families can celebrate the life of a loved one with a larger group, after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

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