The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting a unique set of challenges for the funeral industry nationwide, and area funeral directors are not being spared the confusion and concerns.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the problems for funeral directors do not lie in their business’ handling of bodies of people who have died from COVID-19. The deceased may be processed routinely under 2020 funeral service guidelines, because funeral directors wear Personal Protection Equipment. The problems for funeral homes are coming in how they should address visitations and funerals, because the CDC is now recommending that no gatherings number more than 50 people for the foreseeable future.

The CDC has, however, told funeral directors that there is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation with the body of someone who died of COVID-19. The CDC did state, unprotected members of the public should not touch the body of someone who has died of COVID-19.

There have been no reported COVID-19 deaths in Dodge or Jefferson counties.

Funeral Director Mike Nienow of Hafemeister Funeral Home and Cremation Service, located in Watertown, acknowledged the main concern among his colleagues is how to manage visitations and funerals, in which the physical contact that often comes with consolation of the bereaved has been part of the human experience from its beginning.

“Our concerns are mostly in how to handle the mass gatherings,” Nienow said.

Many municipalities, nationwide, are canceling governmental meetings, while concerts, sporting events, schools and even church services, are being postponed or eliminated, altogether.

Nienow said Hafemeister will be reminding the families it serves that it is the CDC’s recommendation that public gatherings be kept to 50 people or fewer. He said it might be possible to host up to 50 people at a visitation. Then, as people leave, more could be admitted to the venue. He said few funerals attract more than 250 people.

“Visitations are sometimes more than 50,” he said, “but we’d advise that families limit them to fewer than 50 — and we will work with churches.”

He said at the funeral home, hand sanitizer will be plentiful, and bathrooms will be equipped with more-than-sufficient amounts of soap and water.

“We’ll follow the CDC recommendations on limiting gatherings to 50 people for the next eight weeks,” he said. “We will advise (families) on how many people can safely be in the funeral home, or church, at one time. We will also remind people it is not a good idea — at mass gatherings especially — to be hugging, shaking hands, or, of course, kissing each other. Physical expressions of affection should be curtailed, but we are not discouraging funerals, visitations, or the handling of remains by funeral directors, using the usual precautions.”

Funeral Director/Owner Ryan Nowatka of Pederson Funeral Home, which has a location in Waterloo, also said COVID-19 will not likely change the way in which his funeral home handles bodies, but, like his industry peers, his concerns lie in how large groups of mourners can comfortably and safely be accommodated.

“We are wondering whether people will want to be out in the public and that will be difficult. There are so many unknowns,” Nowatka said.

He noted people coming to visitations and funerals can rest assured his funeral home has been cleaned and sanitized, and there will be bottles of hand sanitizer readily available to minimize guests’ exposure to any virus.

“The visitations going forward are definitely the concerns,” he said. “The CDC has recommended people not gather in crowds of more than 50 and many funerals can be more than that. I am willing to look at any options that people come up with, to allow us to better serve and do whatever we can. There are just so many unknowns right now.”

Nowatka said it has always been difficult to plan some visitations and funerals, because funeral directors never know how many people really are going to attend. He also noted that if there are future pandemic concerns, the funeral industry might be well-advised to speed up its experimentation with live-streaming of funerals on the internet.

According to Nowatka, other options for families during the COVID-19 pandemic is to have a small, private, family service, with a celebration of life at a later date. A postponement of the visitation and funeral might also be a good idea, to allow the threat of the virus to pass.

“The funerals and visitation are the biggest hurdles for us in this COVID-19 environment,” he said. The people-to-people contact is such a challenge. People show up and how do you do the ’social distancing’ we are all supposed to be doing? But we will follow the CDC’s recommendations.”

Janet Vick, owner of Schmutzler-Vick Funeral Home and Cremation Service, that has a location in Marshall, said her establishment has a deep concern for the public and families, and the subject of how visitations and funerals will be handled during the pandemic has been weighing heavily on her mind.

“We want to keep everyone safe and this will certainly be a learning experience,” she said. “The question of how we will be addressing funerals and visitations is a good one and the answer right now is, ‘I don’t know, completely, yet.’ Things are changing by the hour. We already clean the funeral home thoroughly and right now, we are monitoring developments as they are coming out (in government and the media). We’re not sure where this is going to end up.”

Vick said her service had a funeral Thursday, but that should not present a concern, because the family has said it is not expecting more than 50 people to attend. The funeral home will be working with families and area churches as the virus progresses.

“I’m on alert and we are keeping tabs on all the information that is coming out. It appears we will all be taking this on a funeral-by-funeral basis,” she said.

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