Bonnie Bode wanted to give her beloved husband of 55 years the funeral he deserved. Glenn, 76, was well-known in their small town of Courtland, Minn., and his family envisioned a few hundred people coming to his service to extend their sympathies.
But the rapid spread of COVID-19, which has disrupted daily life across the world, also disrupted their last goodbye. What was planned as a large funeral service turned into a private one limited to just over a dozen close family members earlier last month.
No friends. No extended family. Not even a guest book. Those are precautions funeral homes across Minnesota are taking to prevent further spread of the lethal virus.
"It was such a letdown," Bode said. "Now as a family we have to comfort one another and that's all that we get."
The global COVID-19 pandemic is dramatically reshaping the age-old ritual of honoring the dead, while adding thousands more to the toll. In places like Minnesota, where virus cases still number in the hundreds, funeral services are being held in front of fewer and fewer people. In Italy, which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus, traditional funeral services have been deemed illegal to stem further spread.
Funeral homes in Minnesota are adjusting to the public health crisis by capping the size of services in accordance with federal and state guidelines and livestreaming them for those who can't make it. Funeral directors here acknowledge even small gatherings could soon be in jeopardy.
The disruption to the funeral industry goes beyond burial services. It's upending the entire chain of business, with directors struggling to obtain death certificates from shuttered county offices and staff unable to retrieve bodies from high-risk locations like nursing homes.
"It's literally a whirlwind that every day, every hour it feels like something changes that adversely impacts us," said Eric Warmka, funeral director of Minnesota Valley Funeral Homes and Cremation Services in New Ulm, which served the Bode family.
'We want people to feel safe'
First came guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending gatherings no larger than 50. Then guidance from the White House urging limits of 10 or fewer. Later the Minnesota Department of Health, which also went with 50 or fewer but said funeral services where most attendants are elderly or immunocompromised should be canceled or postponed.
While Minnesotans stay at home for the next two weeks under an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz, all funeral gatherings will be limited to 10 people or fewer.
Just a few weeks ago, Warmka said, hundreds of people would fill his chapel to comfort the bereaved with hugs and hand-holding. Now, he's limited all services to private groups no larger than 10.
Families are upset. They don't understand why they can't have that extra embrace in their time of grief. Warmka tells them it's for their own good, and society's. He points to other countries where the infected number in the tens of thousands and many are dying alone in quarantine.
The restrictions have been felt across all cultures. Many Jewish families are now connecting virtually to observe the weeklong mourning period of shiva. The Muslim ritual of bathing the deceased, known as ghusl, is being skipped for those who died of the virus or conducted with the use of personal protective equipment. Traditional Hmong funerals, which can span several days and draw hundreds of community members, are being discouraged.
"I know that this is challenging to families who seek to honor their loved ones and elders," Walz wrote in a March 19 letter to a Hmong community leader. "This is a challenging time that will require sacrifices of us all in order to protect the lives of our senior citizens and most vulnerable."
Funeral homes are offering new means of comfort, such as virtual condolence cards, online tributes and Facebook livestreams of services. Directors are also taking precautions to protect their employees.
Rather than meeting in person, funeral staff are making arrangements with families over the phone or through online messaging. They are stockpiling personal protective equipment in case they need to retrieve infected bodies from nursing homes or hospitals. In some cases, staff may begin disinfecting a body at the site of death instead of doing so in their facility.
"We want people to feel safe coming in and we also want to make sure our employees are safe when they're coming in," said Bruce DeArmon, chief financial officer of Estes Funeral Chapel in north Minneapolis. His funeral home has limited services to 50 people or fewer — when not under the governor's stay-at-home order — with a chapel big enough for them all to be spaced 6 feet apart.
Other problems haven't been so easy to solve.
As businesses across the country shut down to prevent the spread, so have county offices, which issue death certificates. Flight restrictions have affected families who want the bodies of their loved ones shipped to their home countries. And funeral staff are sometimes being required to have their temperature taken before entering nursing homes; in some cases, homes for the vulnerable are not letting funeral staff in. Instead, staff at these homes are wheeling bodies out themselves.
"I've been in funeral service now for over 40 years and I've never seen anything to match the magnitude of this as far as the disruption it's causing," said Bryant Hightower, president of the National Funeral Directors Association.
Planning for the worst
State health officials and funeral directors are preparing for the possibility that this pandemic could get worse.
The state recently deemed death care professionals as critical workers not subject to business shutdown orders. The designation came after the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association requested it in a letter to the Health Department.
"This underscores the vital role funeral directors and others who work in deathcare play in responding to the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic," wrote Darlyne Erickson, the funeral association's executive director.
The Minnesota Department of Health is dusting off its mass fatality plan. If local medical examiners were to be overwhelmed by the number of dead, the state's Disaster Mortuary Emergency Response Team would step in, said Chad Ostlund, a business continuity coordinator in the Health Department's emergency preparedness and response division. The team includes 80 volunteers, many of them funeral directors, who would help identify bodies and ensure there is enough storage capacity.
If that team's resources were overwhelmed, Ostlund said, the state could call for assistance from federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams. The federal teams are made up of funeral directors, medical examiners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, fingerprint specialists, dental assistants and others. They work to quickly identify victims and support local mortuary services.
But it probably won't come to that, Ostlund said.
The state has enough capacity to store bodies and would order additional storage units if needed, he said. The state likely won't face issues with identifying the dead, either, as most who test positive for COVID-19 recover from the illness.
"We certainly have been practicing for mass fatality events but this just doesn't necessarily apply," Ostlund said.