Like everything else during COVID-19, traditions around sending the departed to meet their eternal reward get tested. Commemorating the deceased is not what it used to be. Limits on indoor gatherings, along with prescribed physical distancing and face masks, reflect concerns public health officials and average citizens harbor about the novel coronavirus threat. By mid-October COVID claimed 220,000 lives nationwide. COVID cases and deaths in Nebraska rose in September and October.
Funeral services are constrained by the same safety protocols imposed to prevent the spread of the disease. Restrictions add to the strain grieving families endure. Eased strictures in Douglas County now allow 75 percent of mortuary occupancy and 100 percent at graveside services. Six feet of separation between groups is highly recommended but no longer mandatory. Wearing masks is required indoors at sites open to the general public and strongly encouraged for situations or spaces where masks are optional.
COVID has created unprecedented unemployment, with many Omahans facing food or shelter insecurity, even as local protests against social injustice continue. The full brunt of it all – from pandemic struggles to culture wars to Black Lives Matter protests to tragic deaths to selfless gestures of giving – came to bear June 3 at the private service held for 23-year-old JamesReginald D. Scurlock. He was protesting the wrongful killing of George Floyd when his path tragically intersected with Hive bar owner Jake Gardner in downtown Omaha on May 30th.
Shortly after Scurlock’s killing, Good Shepherd Funeral Home owner Mike Hoy reached out to the family and offered his mortuary’s services at no cost. “They took care of everything for us. They just wanted to show their support,” the victim’s father, James (“Big James”) Scurlock said. “A lot of people don’t know that.”
An estimated 80 mourners attended the private service at Good Shepherd’s 24th and J location (an August fire prompted the business to move to its current South 82nd Street site). The public procession to the cemetery for his burial attracted a sizable crowd. “That was massive,” Scurlock said. “We had people just showing up from all over to give their condolences.”
The care shown by Hoy and his staff made the best of a bad situation and exceeded all expectations, Scurlock said.
In 2019 Hoy made news when his plea for people to pay respects to deceased Vietnam combat vet Stanley C. Stoltz, who had little known family, went viral and hundreds showed up. The outpouring of support touched Hoy. “There have been so many very unique, impactful situations in my career and that’s certainly one,” he said.
Then came the Scurlock experience. “That one impacted me greatly,” said Hoy, who knew the controversial case had “people on edge.” He felt compelled to help the family discreetly gather without distraction. “We encouraged that service go unpublished so it could be about the person instead of all the social unrest. In working with that family from a completely different demographic and background, we cared for them just like they were one of our own.”
The family appreciated this show of love amid discord. “Honestly, he went out of his way and beyond what he had to and, to be real about it, what anybody else might have done,” Scurlock said of Hoy.
Empathy comes with the territory. Hoy grew up working for a family-owned Council Bluffs mortuary that was acquired by a national company, who let him go. He ended up in corrections, which led to a law enforcement and public safety career. An effective professional in each field, he said, requires the same people skills.
“You just have to be sincere and compassionate. People can see a phony. There’s just no room for that.” After retiring from law enforcement-public safety, he graduated mortuary school and returned to the funeral home business. “It sure is a passion,” he said.
The outbreak of COVID immediately affected how funeral homes like his conduct services.
Heafey, Hoffmann, Dworak & Cutler Funeral Home partner Bill Cutler Sr., whose family goes back five generations in the field, referred to the COVID-prompted changes as “uncharted territory.”
“From the start of it,” he said, “the visitations and the funerals are smaller than they used to be. We spend a lot of time explaining to families visitation and funeral attendance is going to be down and live streaming is going to be way up. We had one live -streamed funeral with 1,400 people watching.”
Most families err on the side of safety and cooperate with limits. “I will tell you, people get it,” Cutler said. “We don’t have anybody coming in saying I’m not going to follow the rules. Everybody’s trying to do their best.”
When regulations capped gatherings at 10, he bent the rules rather than play Solomon.
“A woman who lost her spouse told me, ‘Bill we understand the rules, but with my children, grandchildren and their spouses, we have 14. Now which four of my grandchildren are you going to tell you can’t come to grandpa’s funeral?’ Well,” Cutler said, “we’re told to use our best judgment and, of course, we let the 14 in.”
An unexpected result from all this, Hoy said, is that in-person viewings are making a comeback. “When an elderly person quarantined in a nursing home passes, families now often delay pre-plans for direct cremation to allow for a viewing. Said Hoy, “I find it really good to have that value in the viewing.”
Hoy and Cutler adapt to client needs, even taking processions past nursing homes and accommodating drive-by visitations.
“We adapt quickly to whatever the circumstances are,” Hoy said.
“If you listen closely to what the family says, you can do anything they need,” said Cutler, who learned the business from his father.
Cutler’s huge facility at 78th and Center enables “us to social distance without any problems,” he said. “The 28,000 square foot mega site replaced a smaller one there destroyed in a 2016 fire.
Intimate services are the ideal. “We have three huge rooms we can divide into smaller rooms,” Cutler said “You don’t want 25 people in a room that accommodates 300.” The Center location, he said, serves “people from all over,” as do the company’s other urban sites, including Korisko Larkin & Staskiewicz at 51st and F. Hoy’s funeral homes (he also has Hoy-Kilnoski in Council Bluffs) serve a diverse clientele, too. Pandemic or not, these directors say people choose mortuaries based on familiarity, cost and fit. A family’s history with a mortuary breeds loyalty.
All funeral homes, regardless of location or history, have been affected by COVID and the adaptations around it.
“Very early on when nobody really knew what was going on or what was going to happen there were some intense challenges there,” Hoy said. “In terms of PPE (Personal protective equipment), we were well-stocked, so there wasn’t a sense of panic we had to try to find additional masks, gloves, aprons, shoe covers or any of those materials. We were well-prepared. Now to say we were prepared for a worldwide pandemic – nobody was ready for that.”
Cutler said COVID comes closest to the AIDS crisis in terms of concerns around handling infected bodies.
“Just like then, our people did a lot of research and basically if you take just a few precautions after a COVID death, it’s not an issue. We’ve handled lots of COVID deaths. We have a big staff, 10 locations, and none of our people have come down with COVID. It has not been an issue for us. But we’re careful. We understand what the rules are and we abide by those rules. Douglas County Health Department answers all our questions.”
There may be no going back to pre-COVID services.
“I’m sure what we do is never going to be the same as what it was before.” Cutler said. “I think people are going to continue to be more cautious about where they are, who they’re with, how they conduct themselves. It’s still kind of a moving scenario. We don’t know what the future holds. Hopefully, we’ll find a vaccine. But this (epidemic) may happen again.”
Both men agree family-held funeral homes like theirs will remain locally-owned service providers for people in their hour of need.
“We’ll roll with the situation even as it continues to morph,” said Hoy, “One of the really nice things about this occupation is we’re quietly in the background ready to serve when we need to.”