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Grieving alone

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Phil Gunderson, owner and funeral director of Gunderson Funeral Home, sits alone in a space used for services. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant fewer interactions, even during times of grief.

Suffering a death in the family or among friends is hard enough under normal conditions.

There’s a visitation, a funeral, a service at graveside.

There are hugs, tears, shoulders to cry on and others nearby to share in the grief.

That was before COVID-19.

Now there’s an order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people.

That order, includes funerals.

It’s not 10 mourners either, it’s 10 counting the funeral director and clergy.

Phil Gunderson, with Gunderson Funeral Home and Cremation Service, speaks with a broken voice as he talks about those 10 or less funerals.

“Unfortunately,” Gunderson said. “People are dying alone or in isolation or only with one or two there. Their families are grieving alone or in isolation. The social support has become more difficult. Grief shared is grief diminished, that’s become more difficult to do.”

Susie McDonald, a funeral director with Laufersweiler-Sievers Funeral Home & Cremation Services, feels deeply for the families

“I put myself in their place,” McDonald said. “I can’t imagine not having a funeral. I feel so bad for them.”

Rob Stapp, owner of Carson-Stapp Funeral Home in Dayton, is concerned too.

“When families have to put it off that can cause unfinished business,” Stapp said. “We don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

Each said they’ve used various ways to try to include as much family as possible without violating the gathering order. Those include live streaming the service, putting it on Zoom and recording it so those not able to attend can view it later.

Stapp came up with an innovative solution for a smaller funeral. Some of the family attended the service then other family members attended the graveside service.

“We were able to split it into groups,” Stapp said.

Gunderson said that families have been understanding.

“They want to do the right thing,” Gunderson said. “It’s really hard to see and be with families that can’t have family traveling. There’s a finality to it. They understand they could be putting lives at risk.”

The pandemic has also caused the funeral homes to interact differently with the public.

Laufersweiler now keeps their door locked.

“This week we locked the door,” McDonald said. “If you need in we meet at the door.”

The others prefer a call first too.

Many families are choosing to postpone the funeral service for their relative. This creates another problem for the families and the funeral homes.

A large backlog of funerals.

“We’re doing many services later,” McDonald said. “We’ll be overwhelmed with services, we currently have 13 pending.”

If the deceased is a traditional funeral with an embalming, the burial can’t be put off. For a cremation service, there’s no real time limit.

The gathering ban hasn’t changed which route families take much.

“People that are traditional,” Stapp said. “They’ll stay traditional. Those on the fence might choose cremation.”

All three already have strict safety protocols in place that they follow to protect their workers as they handle bodies. If a COVID-19 case needs to be handled, they said they’re ready.

“We have a responsibility to care for the dead and those that survive,” Gunderson said. “But we also have to take care of our employees as well.”

All three said they will remain on the job.

They too, like most, are scared. Of the unknown and the future.

“Day by day it seems to change,” Gunderson said. “We’re flooded with information which is really good but we also have to sort out what’s valid. In the end, we will operate in a different way, it will make us better.”

For McDonald, it was a call from several government agencies that brought it home.

“They called,” she said. “They wanted to know how many bodies we can hold in our cooler, how many can we cremate in a day. I hope to God it doesn’t come to that.”

She’s staying at work too.

“No matter what,” she said. “We’re here for people. We understand the fear. We’ll do the best we can. We’re all in this together.”

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