Under a cloudless summer sky, taps sounded and a three-volley rifle salute boomed across Tanners Lake as more than 100 people finally gathered to bid farewell to a beloved father, grandfather, husband and friend who died six months ago.
"I'm tired of crying," said Lynn Wright days before her husband's June 12 memorial service in the same parklike spot outside the St. Paul Harley-Davidson dealership where the couple married in July 2016.
Like so many, Wright finally had the funeral service she felt her husband deserved but couldn't initially have because of COVID-19 restrictions. "I didn't want to limit who could be there," Wright said. "How do you choose?"
With restrictions lifted, funeral homes, churches and other gathering places are hosting long-delayed services to celebrate the lives lost in a year that kept so many apart. Finally, family and friends are coming together to share stories, laugh, cry and linger in a comforting embrace.
"There just hasn't been an opportunity to heal," said Lisa Buersken, one of Michael Wright's longtime friends. "A lot of people didn't get a proper going away. [Their ashes] were just put up on a mantel and there were no services. This is giving him his day."
With Michael Wright's ashes in a green military ammunition box at the front of the picnic shelter, friends swapped stories about high school days and motorcycle rides. They remembered a joyful guy with an easy smile who had been voted homecoming king.
It was the kind of gathering Wright envisioned for her 54-year-old husband — a casual service with military honors, the Patriot Guard Riders nearby and a two-hour memorial motorcycle ride along rural Wisconsin roads.
But it was a long time coming. Her husband died of COVID-19 complications on Dec. 8.
"It's painful to draw something out this long after you lose somebody," Wright said. "You're trying to heal your heart. You're trying to live again. And then you have to drag it all back and relive it. It's not easy."
Ken Coutts, funeral director at Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapels, understands those feelings.
His father died in March 2020, and graveside services were limited primarily to immediate family. COVID-19 travel restrictions kept his brother, who lives in California, from attending.
Coutts figured the family would eventually hold a larger memorial service and community gathering in his father's hometown of Lake Mills, Wis.
"Now it's a year later and I don't know whether to do it," Coutts said. "On one side of the debate, it's about honoring my father the way I think he should be honored. On the other side: Do I want to put myself through that process again, bringing up all the emotions that go with it? I guess I'll leave it up to my brother in California because he couldn't be here."
No more muffled 'Amens'
Kevin Waterston, a manager at the Cremation Society of Minnesota, expects some families may not hold services after postponements dragged into months.
"Some people feel they don't need it anymore," he said. "They didn't have a service per se, but in the last eight months or so they've talked to relatives and they've gotten some of the grief out."
Other families are moving ahead. About a quarter of the services held at the Cremation Society of Minnesota in recent weeks have been for those who died months ago, Waterston said.
For more than a year, the global pandemic upended funeral rituals, forcing some families to settle for what was possible at the time or wait until life returned to something akin to normal.
Now that more people are vaccinated against the virus and restrictions have been lifted, Mouala Moua, family services director at the Hmong Funeral Home in St. Paul, said his community is once again holding its traditional services that often include large gatherings with people coming from across the country to share lots of food over three days. Out of caution, some still wear masks and social distance, he said.
Mohamed Elakkad, director of Assalam Mosque in Maplewood, said normal Muslim funeral services likely will return gradually.
"COVID drastically changed things. Everything was done in the cemetery with people all standing spaced out," Elakkad said.
The Jewish community also adapted. The shiva that traditionally brings family and friends into a mourner's home to provide support went virtual over the past year, said Rabbi Esther Adler at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul.
"We're moving slowly to returning to normal. Children aren't yet vaccinated," she explained. "And who knows what normal will be going forward. We've seen some advantages to the Zoom thing. Family and friends who live all over the country or the world can now attend funerals and services that they couldn't before. The question when we go back to normal: How are we going to include them?"
At New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, pews are packed again for uplifting homegoing services that celebrate the deceased and give hope to the living, said its pastor, the Rev. Jerry McAfee. The sound of voices singing and shouts of "Amen!" no longer are muffled behind masks.
"It feels good to see people's faces again," he said.
A week after Minnesota's mask mandate was lifted in May, Jeanne Schultz gave a "proper send-off" for her husband, James, who died Dec. 19. About 200 people attended the service, filled with wonderful tributes to her husband that left her feeling on "top of the world."
"I needed to see people and their expressions, and none of that would have happened if I had a service right away," she said. "I would have rather it not been five months because that's a long time."
The delay changes the grieving process, said Kim Eckstrom of Rosemount, who lost her father, Robert, in December. Until his services were held in May, she kept her grief in check. "I found myself pushing those emotions to the very back corner and doing whatever I could do to keep myself busy so I didn't have to think about it."
The urn with her father's ashes sat on her coffee table for six months.
"I'm glad we waited," Eckstrom said. The room at the St. Paul Masonic Center was filled with those who meant the most to her father. The needed hugs she got allowed her tears to fall freely.
Twin Cities therapist Gabriel Sims said some clients who lost loved ones more than six months ago are still in the early stages of grief.
Funeral rituals provide a mechanism for grieving, communal healing and a start to becoming whole again, he said. "If you haven't done anything, just do it no matter how much time has passed," he said.
Some forced by restrictions to hold smaller services or virtual ones were surprised to find the comfort they needed, according to Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
It wasn't the funeral they envisioned, but they felt it was more personal and intimate in a way that a larger funeral couldn't be, she said.
For those forced to delay services, the grieving process may have been complicated if they felt isolated, Kreitzer said.
Pam Kuehn of Faribault leaned on close family and friends when her 36-year-old son, Jonathan Nixon, died suddenly in January. "The grief was overwhelming," she said. Delaying the funeral until restrictions eased allowed her to "hold it together better" at the May services.
"But the delay was difficult for everyone," Kuehn added.
Cindy Thalhuber of Rosemount isn't sure what to expect when her family holds a memorial service in August for her mother, Barb Kelly, who died of cancer on March 27, 2020.
Her family held a small burial service in June 2020 when a large memorial service wasn't possible. It was nixed again in August and September and again on the anniversary of her mother's death.
"Now it's to the point when we finally can do this," Thalhuber said. "It will be hard to go back to that point where we're all sad again."
Or, maybe it will be a happier celebration of her mother's life because time has begun to heal the hurt, she said.
Her mother planned her own funeral, choosing scripture readings and the songs grandchildren would sing. So family and friends will soon gather to reminisce, embrace, laugh and cry.
"Right now it's kind of like a book that doesn't have an ending yet," Thalhuber said. "We just haven't finished."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788