Funeral homes find new ways to help families remember loved ones

May 21, 2020

Funeral homes in Sioux Falls have been forced to drastically change how people mourn in recent months and aren’t sure when services might start to resemble more normal traditions.

Gatherings were restricted to no more than 10 people in mid-March, post-service lunches and gatherings were eliminated, there was no live music, and most services were held in funeral homes instead of churches. Some of those restrictions gradually are easing.

Miller Funeral Home funeral director Joel Vipond said it has been hard on families to have to remember their loved ones in such an atypical fashion.

“(Families) really do have the need of community support,” Vipond said. “And the challenge right now is just simply the inability to give those people the community support that they so badly need.”

While following the guidelines in place, each funeral home has its own specific policies on how their employees and guests socially distance. Funeral director Matt Pepper said Heritage Funeral Home has extended the amount of attendees allowed at services to accommodate “immediate family.”

“In some situations, there’s been a few more than 10 (people),” Pepper said. Let’s say for example, in your family you had 15 people. I’m not going to say five of them can’t come to Grandma’s funeral.”

While Heritage has not required its employees to wear masks during services, George Boom Funeral Home has its staff wear masks. Funeral director Phil Schmitz estimates that George Boom has handled roughly 70 percent of Sioux Falls’ COVID-19 deaths. Schmitz said the funeral home has always taken “universal precaution” when it comes to providing PPE to its employees.

For every private funeral service that Miller conducts during this time, Vipond said it will offer a public memorial service when it’s safe to do so — with no additional charge to the family. The big question that Miller and all funeral homes don’t know the answer to is when that will be possible. 

With signs of positive change on the horizon regarding the spread of the coronavirus, the funeral homes have started to slowly lift restrictions.

George Boom has made the most significant change when it comes to the number of attendees at a service. With a larger facility than most funeral homes that can normally seat 400 people, George Boom now allows 120 people to attend a service in accordance with square-footage guidelines.

While not requiring guests to wear a mask, Schmitz said that the funeral home asks that they do so and can provide masks if its guests need them.

All three funeral directors said the pandemic has been harder on their guests than it has been on their businesses.

The funeral homes have tried to come up with creative ways to involve as many people as possible, including live-streaming services. Pepper and Schmitz said their funeral homes have been in contact with other funeral homes in Sioux Falls and around the state to ask for advice and discuss when things can start getting back to normal.

“What is the new normal going to be, and how long is this going to last? I think it’s going to depend on the churches and a lot of it depends on the family,” Pepper said.

“If the family says, ‘Absolutely, we want everybody wearing masks,’ then we do. And the general public is probably going to have to do it too when they start letting people in. But as far as when, I don’t know. We kind of go by what the city says and the state says.”

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