The harsh reality of pandemic-restricted gatherings has cut attendance by about half from pre-COVID 19 services at Jon in Elkhorn, Yutan and Bennington.
This is by far the biggest instant change they’ve ever had to deal with, said Reichmuth, a 44-year tenured funeral director. “One day it was here and we had to figure out how to protect ourselves and adjust to these restraints on our facilities and gatherings.”
“Just when you think you’ve thought about every problem or contingency, another pops up,” Reichmuth said. “We’ve progressed where we can have more people and capacity. But back in March and April when it was 10 people (per service), it was very difficult. And it was new. Now people understand the restrictions a little better and are a little more open to options we can provide. But it’s still not good and it looks like this situation isn’t changing anytime soon.”
Some services have been postponed or rescheduled. “In July a lot of those families went ahead,” he said. “Now we’re starting a backlog again. Folks are waiting until spring. That’s not good either. But given what we’re dealing with, it’s just something we have to endure.”Being apart when you expect to be together is “difficult,” said Vicky Pruess, whose husband of 47 years, Dwayne Pruess, died July 7. COVID kept many folks from the mortuary visitation at Reichmuth’s 21901 West Maple Road mortuary and private church service in Elkhorn.
“Dwayne was really close to a lot of his cousins. To have to exclude them and our friends was really hard,” said Vicky. “Your heart goes out to everyone dealing with death at this particular time.”
COVID has crippled industries and cost people livelihoods. When an impacted family loses a loved one, the pricey trappings of embalming, a casket, a procession and a headstone are prohibitive compared to cremation, which is replacing traditional services and interment.
Over his career Reichmuth has embalmed, buried and cremated thousands of individuals. Back in the ’70s when he started in the business, he said probably 95% of the deceased his staff cared for were embalmed and had traditional burial. Today that’s only 40%.
Industry professionals say fewer people now feel bound to follow religious-influenced burial traditions when cremation offers a cheaper, more eco-friendly option. But no matter which method they choose, Reichmuth said it’s never easy helping a family lay someone to rest.
“It’s one thing for grandma to slip away in the nursing home at 90, but another to lose somebody in a tragic, gruesome accident,” he said. “As staff, each of us have our own kryptonite or weakness in certain circumstances,” he said, noting that the death of a child is particularly painful for all. “Some people are under the misconception we’re heartless or unemotional, but that’s not true. We all go home to families.”
As hard as a particular death may be, a funeral director must remain composed. Navigating families through these difficult situations is part skill and part intuition. Experience helps.
However, COVID’s added new permutations, especially when a person dies alone.
“Sometimes a loved one’s been quarantined for months and the first time the family actually sees them in person is here in a casket at the funeral home,” Reichmuth said “That’s devastating.”
In the semi-rural areas his business serves, relationships are paramount. Reichmuth said they see a lot of the same families coming back from generation to generation. Relationships run deep out here.
Vicky Pruess knew who would handle her husband’s services long before he died at home following a long illness. She said Reichmuth’s become part of their extended family by helping them through the loss of friends and relatives.
“They were in constant contact about Dwayne,” she said, “letting us know they were there for us when the time came. You don’t get that personal connection most places. They’ve never lost that small town touch.”
But familiarity is fading. Reichmuth said back in the ‘70s, the staff knew almost everybody that came in for a funeral. With so much change over the past few decades, that’s no longer the case.
However, personalized services hold more meaning than ever. Reichmuth said they try to find something extraordinary about the person – and a way to present that.
“We did the services for a guy who restored a classic Ford pickup,” he said. “We used the truck instead of the funeral coach since it had such meaning to his family.”
Even small, subtle things are meaningful. When Reichmuth discovered kolaches were a tradition in one family, he served the pastry at visitation instead of the typical cookies. Another family was nostalgic about their late grandma’s lasagna.
“We got the recipe and my caterer made this dish for the funeral lunch,” he said. “It took everyone back.”
It’s all about promoting conversations, reminiscences and stories. Reichmuth said he knows staff can’t change the fact someone died, but they can focus on the things they did that brought joy in their lifetime.
The Pruess family wrote an online tribute to the husband and father they lost. It shared the story of Dwayne’s life as a farmer and family man who loved motorcycles, trucks, boating, softball and Westerns. Someone affectionately posted about Dwayne Pruess being “bigger than life.”
“Certain facets of our industry think everything should be in person, but that’s not possible anymore, especially in the last eight months,” Reichmuth said “We’re scattered and now with COVID we’re isolated. People need to be able to connect. Our website is completely interactive. People can upload photos or leave a memory or a condolence.” Reichmuth also added webcasting in 2009, but said they’ve never utilized it like they have in the past eight months. Live streaming allows people to participate online. Vicky appreciated those who viewed her husband’s funeral that way but feels it’s no substitute for saying goodbye in person. “It’s still not the same as having those loved ones around you right close with you,” she said.
Reichmuth’s belief in the communal power of healing is why he holds an annual memorial service the Saturday after Thanksgiving for those who’ve suffered a recent loss. They’ve debated whether to even do it this year.
“We decided we’re going ahead,” he said. “We’ll stream it. It’s an uplifting ceremony that brings people together. We have a remembrance gift for each family. Folks tend to linger just visiting and relaxing. Sometimes they just need to get out of the house and hear a good message.”
The added stress of dealing with death in a pandemic taxes everyone, including funeral directors, whose essential worker status is never more evident.
“Whether you’re sitting down for dinner or at a movie, if you happen to get called out, you have to go,” Reichmuth said. “Families look to us to take care of it. It’s always been that way, and that’s okay, that’s what we’re here for.
“Hopefully you do a good job for them and help to lighten their load on their next step. It’s very satisfying.”