AT A LATER DATE: Funeral directors assist families in the COVID-19 era
Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Photos by Russ Mitchell
When Lynn "Hec" Ramsey passed away, his family held a quiet graveside service Monday morning in Lake View. A note on the Faber & Otteman Funeral Homes website said: "Due to current CDC guidelines and Gov. Reynolds' public health disaster declaration limiting all services, the family will be planning a celebration of life for Hec to be held at a later date."
Messages like that aren't limited to funeral homes in the greater Storm Lake area. When Lisa Galm passed away Feb. 21, the family and Warner Funeral Home of Spencer let the lifelong caregiver's loved ones know that "due to the coronavirus outbreak, memorial services will be held at a later date."
Shirley Schoorman's family worked with Turner Jenness Family Funeral Homes on a private service for the 99-year-old who raised her family on a farm west of Milford. When Muriel Nelson of Spirit Lake and formerly of Storm Lake passed away Sunday, March 22, the family held a private graveside service. "There will be a public memorial service held at a later date," the Schuchert-Lentz Funeral Home and Crematory of Spirit Lake told her loved ones.
"This, for most if not all families we serve, is the most difficult thing they will deal with in their lives," Faber & Otterman interim funeral director Amanda Lynch said. "To not be able to receive in-person support from their whole family and friends or communities is a huge deal. That grieving, with others, is all a part of the process. To have to delay that is difficult. We remind our families that we are here for them, night and day, for whatever they may need from us."
As COVID-19 was ramping up and getting national attention in places like China and Italy in mid-February, northwest Iowa funeral directors were beginning to get notices and warnings from the National Funeral Directors Association and the Iowa Funeral Directors Association.
"The statements were just reading material on what funeral homes were dealing with there at the current time and how it could possibly affect our industry here," Korey Robinson of Schuchert-Lentz said. "We as an industry started getting announcements and protocol on how to practice from the state of Iowa on Sunday, March 15."
March 15 is also the date Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered all schools closed and the Iowa Legislature announced plans to pause the current session. The decisions are part of an effort to discourage the large gatherings known to fuel the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Greg Jenness of Turner Jenness said "everything changed" after the governor's announcements. Funeral home staff members were in contact with families the following Monday morning. Jenness said some families switched from a public gathering to a private family service. Others decided to do a burial and have the public service at a later date.
"Our staff at the funeral home can still care for families during their time of loss and assist in planning a service, even though the type of service looks completely different than it would have just a week ago," Jenness said. "What we can't do, is give families that full community support that only friends and family can provide. At times like this when we can't just give that hug or that handshake support for families that have experienced loss is so important. That's where our community comes in. We encourage you to reach out to families that are hurting, whether by phone, messages or a good old fashioned hand-written letter. The smallest of action can make such a difference."
Brad Hawn of Warner Funeral Home has seen grace from families who are faced with difficult circumstances.
"Families have responded to the changes extremely well," he said. "They are very much on board because they have the same concerns we have. We are thankful for that, but we also feel bad they aren't able to celebrate their family member's life in the traditional, larger way."
Northwest Iowa's clergy have also played an important role as funeral homes try to serve families. Hawn has used online meetings with his ministerial associations to navigate ways to help families. Some visitations and services have been live-streamed to keep families safe.
"The grieving process is more difficult now because loved ones are unable to have their friends present," he said. "Friends can be just as close emotionally as family members. So not having them at visitations or funeral services has been difficult. We've encouraged people to reach out to each other via text, phone calls, FaceTime whatever to ensure they express their feelings. As painful as it is, it's healthy to go through the grief process, so during this time we encourage other ways to do it when a large gathering isn't possible."
KEEPING THE STAFF SAFE
Funeral directors remain available as the need arises throughout northwest Iowa, but the way they stay in contact with families has changed.
"Our main priority is to protect the community, and especially those who are most vulnerable. The best way to care for the community is to first take care of ourselves. As difficult as it is, we have to refrain from physical contact with the families, and be aware of physical distance with those we interact with. As an industry, the use of universal precautions has been the standard for many years. NFDA (National Funeral Directors Association) has been out front in providing webinars on recommending best practices in dealing with COVID-19. The funeral home will remain open to our communities as normal; however, during this time, we encourage communication to be over the phone, via email or through virtual meetings online." Greg Jenness, Turner Jenness Family Funeral Homes
"We are fully stocked up on personal protective equipment, we are cleaning our facility as soon as the families we have met in person leave. We have posted signs encouraging personal hygiene and washing hands. My staff and I are staying home when able. We hope that encourages the general public to not come out when not necessary. However, we are a 24/7 business. We want you to know that when a loved one dies, we still take care of things like we always have. We are and have always been just a phone call away." Korey Robinson, Schuchert-Lentz Funeral Home & Crematory
"Everyone at Warner Funeral Home is using the CDC's precautions to stay healthy social distancing, washing hands, cleaning frequently touched surfaces and so on. Our staff knows not to come to work if they experience a cough, fever, or shortness of breath. Our hours have remained the same; we're available 24/7. Our work hasnt changed either. We feel we provide a valuable service and were committed to being there for our families, regardless of the day or time or what is going on in the world." Brad Hawn, Warner Funeral Homes & Crematory
"We have constant and regular cleaning of all areas but, of course, more so doorknobs, phones, desks, light switches, hand railings, bathrooms, sinks, etc. all areas that are touched frequently. We have stationed motion-sensor hand sanitizer stations around the facility as well as posted signs on all doors about keeping distance, refraining from all physical contact and constant hand-washing and sanitizing. We only have one door open for the public to come and go from at this time. Of course staff uses all personal protective equipment when dealing with any mortuary duties and otherwise." Amanda Lynch, Faber & Otteman Funeral Homes