COVID-19 funerals

A casket at Hafemeister Funeral Home and Cremation Service in downtown Watertown is shown on display Tuesday afternoon. Hafemeister funeral director Mike Nienow called the number of COVID-19 deaths his business has been handling recently, "staggering."

One area funeral director called the number of COVID-19-related deaths his business has been handling lately, “staggering,” while another simply said she cannot wait for the day the stress of the pandemic is a thing of the past.

Hafemeister Funeral Home and Cremation Service Funeral Director Mike Nienow of Watertown called his situation extremely challenging.

“I’d estimate our COVID-19-related deaths at Hafemeister Funeral Home are over 30,” Nienow said Tuesday, adding this number is higher than the City of Watertown is sharing, but many of these deaths were of people with ties to the city whose deaths occurred outside the area.

Nienow said many of the deaths have been of elderly individuals, but a few have reached into younger demographics.

“Only a few were on hospice care,” Nienow said, adding Watertown averages six deaths a week in normal times.

“So, to see three and four COVID-19 deaths being reported in one day is staggering,” he said.

In March, just after the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in Jefferson and Dodge counties, the Daily Times spoke with several area funeral directors to find out how they were being affected.

At that time, already, the pandemic was presenting a unique set of challenges for the funeral industry here. It continues to cause special concerns, with directors saying they are confronted with numerous new dilemmas only a pandemic can present.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the problems for funeral directors have not so much been in their business’ handling of the bodies of people who have died from COVID-19. The deceased may be processed routinely under 2020 funeral service guidelines and funeral directors always wear Personal Protection Equipment. The problems for funeral homes have come more in the realm of how they handle visitations and the social event that is a funeral under today’s restrictions.

The volume of business has also increased for local funeral homes as the coronavirus has caused many more deaths locally than in the past.

Nienow said he and his colleagues in the local funeral industry have always worn PPE when handling deceased remains, but now follow even stricter protocols.

“The funeral process has changed dramatically,” he said. “Visitations can be held, but are limited in capacity, require social distancing, and the use of face masks. Most families are handling funeral arrangements using the guidelines I mentioned. Some are planning on having a service, burial, or celebration of life at a later date.”

Marla Michaelis, of Schneider-Michaelis Funeral Home in Jefferson, said her establishment has handled approximately seven confirmed COVID-19 cases and a few others are suspected of being coronavirus-related.

Like Nienow, Michaelis said her funeral home’s handling of bodies that come into its care hasn’t changed that much as a result of COVID-19, but there has been a tightening of protocols and visitations hardly look like they used to.

“We handle every body that comes into our care with respect and dignity,” Michaelis said. “COVID doesn’t really change that much, other than we do place a mask on the deceased prior to our staff moving or transferring the body. We always use universal precautions and PPE for every case.”

Michaelis said most families now choose to hold small, private, family visitations and services, or graveside gatherings.

“We have been able to offer online streaming of services if the family would like that option,” she said. “If families prefer the traditional visitation, we do ask that guests wear masks and respect social distancing. We have an electronic guestbook that provides a ‘touchless’ way to sign the book.”

Michaelis said, in some cases, Schneider-Michaelis has had a staff member signing guests in on an Ipad. The entries are then moved into a traditional guestbook that is given to the family as a keepsake.

“We have also offered extended hours for visitation to accommodate people who want to pay their respects, but don’t intend to stay for services,” she said.

Overall, according to Michaelis, most of the public has been proceeding with caution and her funeral home has been trying to offer families as much support as possible.

“Most of the services that have taken place have happened without the traditional funeral luncheons and fewer attendees,” she said. “We also clean and sanitize the facility and all touch-points, and we provide hand sanitizer for all guests.”

Michaelis said some families have postponed funeral services or celebrations of life for their loved ones until the pandemic passes.

“That is an option, if it fits the family’s needs,” she said.

Michaelis is managing to hold up under the increased stress and busier schedule brought on by COVID-19.

“I, like most people, am coping O.K.,” she said. “Along with many folks, I too am feeling the ‘COVID fatigue.’ I see the grief of families not able to have the large, open-to-the-public gatherings to receive the support of community. I see folks afraid to expose themselves and family members to the general public, and I see the general public afraid to be exposed to each other.”

Nienow also said he sees families struggling to find closure and to receive the support from family and friends to which they are accustomed.

“And like our healthcare system, our staff has been working harder than ever, due to the increased death rate,” Nienow said. “We are thankful and appreciative for our staff’s dedication to our family business under these difficult, and sometimes overwhelming, circumstances.”

Michaelis said only time will tell what the emotional and mental health impacts of the pandemic will be on the overall population of the area, and on those who work in the funeral industry.

“As funeral directors, we love and care for each family that comes through our doors and we care about our community,” she said. “I am just looking forward to getting life back to some sort of normal.”

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