Forest Lawn Executive Director Steve Brunken. Photo by Josh Foo.

Death is tough enough anytime. Dealing with a pandemic that compromises how people gather before and after loss is especially cruel. Then there’s the stark reality of COVID-19 fatalities straining hospital and morgue capacities in some cities. Unchanged is the red-tape bureaucracy of death.

The unpleasantness of these cold, hard facts is leavened by tributes memorializing the departed and serene settings bearing their remains. As final destination spots go, Forest Lawn Funeral Home and Cemetery at 7909 Mormon Bridge Rd. offers rare beauty and historic heritage.

Opened in 1885, this 349-acre sanctuary is one of the largest cemeteries west of the Mississippi, said Executive Director Steven Brunken. The park-like layout accentuates the natural grandeur of the Missouri River basin’s rolling hills and valleys. It’s a habitat for turkey, deer and fox, plus a large variety of birds and trees. The site is both a state-sanctioned arboretum and bird sanctuary, popular with walkers, nature-lovers and birdwatchers.

Forest Lawn Historic Chapel

“The history and beauty of the cemetery is probably the main draw for people choosing us,” Brunken said. “The first thing we like to do is take them on a tour up into the cemetery and show them what we have.”

It’s the resting site of an impressive gallery of early Omaha icons such as Gottlieb Storz, Peter Kiewit, Herman  Kountze and George and Sarah Joslyn. A 40-grave national burial site for military veterans is part of the cemetery. Just to the north is Potter’s Field, where Will Brown, lynched in Omaha’s 1919 Red Summer riot, lay in an unmarked grave until a headstone was installed a few years ago. An historical marker was erected last fall.

Forest Lawn Family Service Director Angela Erickson

“Forest Lawn is so unique,” said Family Service Director Angela Erickson, who visited many cemeteries across the nation earlier in her career. “It’s just different here. You’ve got the trees, the wildlife, the expanse. It’s so quiet and peaceful. It’s just beautiful.”

Forest Lawn’s historic chapel designed by noted architect John A. McDonald dates back to the early 1900s. The granite, marble and bronze edifice is adorned by mosaics, friezes and leaded stained glass windows. The intimate space normally holds 80 but is limited to half that during COVID.

With the 2015 addition of a new prairie-style funeral home designed by Frasier-Martis Architects of Omaha, Forest Lawn now has a second, larger (20,000 square feet), dedicated indoor space for services. Its warm design, accented by wood beams and panels, plentiful windows and a large fireplace and hearth embrace death care’s homey origins in people’s parlors. Converted mansions housed early mortuaries, thus the term “funeral homes.” The new structure contains offices, meeting rooms, reception spaces and other amenities. During normal times, its main chapel can hold 200.

An enclosed mausoleum under construction (slated to open in the spring) will be a bright, airy, magisterial space with glass-fronted niches for intimate memorial displays. Upon completion, Forest Lawn will join Westlawn-Hillcrest as the metro’s only comprehensive complexes with a mausoleum, crematorium, funeral home and cemetery. A 10-acre garden for pet remains is on the drawing board.

“People are more celebratory now in death than they were 40 years ago,” said Brunken. Celebrating the life of the deceased extends to brighter, more colorful and personal memorials, complete with photos, rather than the staid memorial ornamentation of the past.

Architectural rendering of the cemetary’s new mausoleum

And having everything in one location “is a huge convenience for people,” said Brunken, and an advantage during the pandemic. Besides the splendor of the semi-rural setting, the spacious surroundings offer abundant social distancing.

Receiving and preparing bodies for viewing, burial or cremation is the practical work of funeral homes. But as a funeral director, Brunken noted, “you spend more time with the living than you do the dead,” adding, “The people aspect of it is what really has intrigued me the most – taking care of the people that have needs.”

After death, a load of decisions fall on survivors.

“Planning a funeral is really no different than planning a wedding,” he said, “except it’s done in a day or two rather than weeks or months.”

The details and costs are equivalent, too. And the business of death “doesn’t stop the day of the burial,” Brunken said, “when there are estates to settle.”

Most families don’t have a funeral plan.  As COVID makes real the fragility of life, he said, “We have seen more people planning now for the inevitable.”

“We’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from people saying this has really made us think about our demise,” Erickson said. “It’s brought people out to actually pre-plan and put things in place.”

She’s seen both sides. “Families come in with services pre-arranged – everything taken care of. It’s just a matter of getting some authorizations. And I’ve seen families with no plans in place.” she said. “They are here sometimes for hours trying to figure out what to do. There’s a lot of of indecision and unnecessary stress, constantly asking if they’ve done the right thing.”

Forest Lawn Cemetary

Whatever clients choose to do, Erickson said, “It’s very rewarding knowing you’ve helped families through a very difficult time.”

Forest Lawn’s laid to rest its share of COVID victims. Its prohibitions inhibiting how death care pros interact with the public can be an endurance test for staff and clients.

Said Erickson, “Our staff are kind, caring, compassionate people. Sometimes families want to give us a hug for helping them through a difficult time and we just can’t do that right now. We can’t even shake hands. You can show a lot of emotion on your face, but when you’re wearing a mask you’re not able to express as much. That makes it difficult. Not being able to do that has been a big struggle for my staff because that’s just part of what we do.”

Over and over, they’ve had to adapt and adjust. “Because we are an essential business we know we have to keep going forward,” Erickson said.

Comforting the bereaved is never easy, but in cases of COVID, the deceased was likely quarantined from family. “It takes a special person to be able to handle that with sensitivity. I don’t know if you actually learn it or if you just have it,” Brunken said. Making it even more challenging is that staff have lives and families of their own also impacted by COVID.

As the pandemic drags on, cities and states have contingency plans in place should hospitals and morgues be overwhelmed by COVID deaths. Refrigerated trucks and mortuaries can fill the void when it comes to storing bodies. “The funeral homes in Omaha work very well together in a mass casualty situation,” said Brunken, adding, “It hasn’t come to that here.”  

COVID can alter the timeline funeral homes and cemeteries operate under for memorializing or interring remains. Some grieving families are electing to put off services until the spring. In cases where deceased were isolated from family for safety-health reasons, a planned direct or immediate cremation is often postponed to allow relatives time to spend with the departed.

Quoting an old adage, Brunken said, “Death doesn’t take a holiday.” Likewise, COVID doesn’t discriminate. All the more reason in this extraordinary moment funeral homes do what they safely can to let families breath, cry, laugh and reminisce, pandemic be damned.

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