The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting a unique set of challenges for the funeral industry nationwide, and Jefferson County funeral directors are not being spared the confusion and concerns.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that the problems for funeral directors do not lie in their business’ handling of bodies of people who have died from COVID-19. The deceased may be processed routinely under 2020 funeral service guidelines because funeral directors wear Personal Protection Equipment.

Rather, the problems for funeral homes are coming in how they should address visitations and funerals, because the CDC now is recommending that no gatherings number more than 50 people for the foreseeable future. Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday restricted that number to no more than nine, but there are exemptions that likely include funeral homes.

The CDC has, however, told funeral directors that there is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation with the body of someone who died of COVID-19. The CDC did state that unprotected members of the public should not touch the body of someone who has died of COVID-19.

There have been no reported COVID-19 deaths in Dodge or Jefferson counties.

Hafemeister Funeral Home and Cremation Service funeral director Mike Nienow acknowledged the main concern among his colleagues today is how to manage visitations and funerals, in which the physical contact that often comes with consolation of the bereaved has been part of the human experience from its beginning.

“Our concerns are mostly in how to handle the mass gatherings,” Nienow said.

Nienow said Hafemeister, located in Watertown, will be reminding the families it serves that it is the CDC’s recommendation that public gatherings be kept to 50 people or fewer. He said it might be possible to host up to 50 people at a visitation. Then, as people leave, more could be admitted to the venue. He said few funerals attract more than 250 people.

“Visitations are sometimes more than 50,” he said, “but we’d advise that families limit them to fewer than 50 — and we will work with churches.”

He said at the funeral home, hand sanitizer will be plentiful, and restrooms will be equipped with more-than-sufficient amounts of soap and water.

“We’ll follow the CDC recommendations on limiting gatherings to 50 people for the next eight weeks,” he said. “We will advise (families) on how many people can safely be in the funeral home, or church, at one time. We will also remind people it is not a good idea — at mass gatherings especially — to be hugging, shaking hands or, of course, kissing each other. Physical expressions of affection should be curtailed, but we are not discouraging funerals, visitations or the handling of remains by funeral directors, using the usual precautions.”

Funeral director/owner Ryan Nowatka of Pederson Funeral Home also said COVID-19 likely will not change the way in which his funeral home handles bodies, but, like his Watertown industry brethren, said his concerns lie in how large groups of mourners can comfortably and safely be accommodated.

“We are wondering whether people will want to be out in the public and that will be difficult. There are so many unknowns,” Nowatka said.

He noted people coming to visitations and funerals can rest assured his funeral home has been cleaned and sanitized, and there will be bottles of hand sanitizer readily available to minimize guests’ exposure to any virus.

“The visitations going forward are definitely the concerns,” he said. “The CDC has recommended people not gather in crowds of more than 50 and many funerals can be more than that. I am willing to look at any options that people come up with, to allow us to better serve and do whatever we can. There are just so many unknowns right now.”

Nowatka said it has always been difficult to plan some visitations and funerals, because funeral directors never know how many people really are going to attend. He also noted that if there are future pandemic concerns, the funeral industry might be well-advised to speed up its experimentation with live-streaming of funerals on the internet.

According to Nowatka, other options for families during the COVID-19 pandemic is to have a small, private, family service, with a celebration of life at a later date. A postponement of the visitation and funeral might also be a good idea, to allow the threat of the virus to pass.

“The funerals and visitation are the biggest hurdles for us in this COVID-19 environment,” he said. The people-to-people contact is such a challenge. People show up and how do you do the ’social distancing’ we are all supposed to be doing? But we will follow the CDC’s recommendations.”

Janet Vick, owner of Schmutzler-Vick Funeral Home and Cremation Service, said her establishment has a deep concern for the public and families, and the subject of how visitations and funerals will be handled during the pandemic has been weighing heavily on her mind.

“We want to keep everyone safe and this will certainly be a learning experience,” she said. “The question of how we will be addressing funerals and visitations is a good one and the answer right now is, ‘I don’t know, completely, yet.’ Things are changing by the hour. We already clean the funeral home thoroughly and right now, we are monitoring developments as they are coming out (in government and the media). We’re not sure where this is going to end up.”

Vick said her service has a funeral Thursday, but that should not present a concern, because the family has said it is not expecting more than 50 people to attend. The funeral home will be working with families and area churches as the virus progresses.

“I’m on alert and we are keeping tabs on all the information that is coming out. It appears we will all be taking this on a funeral-by-funeral basis,” she said.

At Dunlap Memorial Home in Fort Atkinson, owner Nathan Dunlap said families who have lost a loved one can elect to invite just immediate family and friends to a visitation for social-distancing reasons.

“We want to make sure we stay under that 50 (-persons) mark,” Dunlap said just prior to Governor Evers on Tuesday imposing ther order restricting gatherings to 10 or fewer persons. “Obviously that (number) could change with (new restrictions imposed on) gatherings of 10 or more — it could change 20 minutes from now.”

He said his funeral home, when talking with families, now will be offering to perform private family burials sooner than later.

“Once things go back to normal, then they (family) can have a full funeral service at that time,” Dunlap said. “Then there will be no limits on who can come or can’t come.

“Closure is an important part (of the grieving process), so we don’t want to wait too long for that (burial),” he added. “After things get back to normal, then families can have a more traditional gathering.”

The director said a family can have more immediate private family services and postpone a larger service until a later date. He said one or two families in the last week either have postponed or cancelled a funeral service at his memorial home. Another family, he said, only will invite immediate family this week.

Dunlap Memorial Home, like many other funeral parlors, he said, is not equipped to accommodate 50 or more persons at one time.

“Churches and bigger gathering spaces have that (room), but many of them are closed,” Dunlap said, noting that some Catholic churches are open for persons to come in and pray, but they have signs advising people to maintain personal space.

Asked if attendance at visitations and funerals has dropped any, he said his memorial home has “not had a case yet where fewer (people) are turning out. However, we had a family that just cancelled because they can’t get airfare for the return flight.”

And, he noted, Dunlap Memorial Home is not equipped with the ability to live-stream a funeral service via Skype or Facebook Live.

Meantime, staff have some hand sanitizer but cannot obtain any more sanitizer or face masks now since they are sold out.

“We wipe off all the door handles and touchpoints of everything!” Dunlap noted. “We can’t prevent it (virus), so we just do what we can.”

Since the elderly are among the most at-risk population, he said, his staff leaves room for discretion as to whether grandmothers and grandfathers, for example, wish to attend a service or visitation.

“We advise that age group that they probably shouldn’t attend, but we won’t tell them that they can’t — they should still be allowed to make their own decision,” Dunlap said. “We’re not going to say ‘you’re over a certain age, you can’t attend’ (a funeral). But the elderly are affected the most.”

When it comes to consoling grieving family members, the director said, he now is not going to encourage shaking of hands.

“I’m not going to push hand-shaking myself, but if a family extends their hands, I’m going to shake them,” Dunlap said. “I just read a National Funeral Directors Association (directive) that said ‘a smile, a wave and heartfelt words are same as a handshake and a hug’ under the present circumstances.”

When meeting with a bereaved family, he said, his staff now will share options that they can hold a small, private family service.

“I hate to turn people away,” Dunlap said. “More (services) will be private now because families need closure right away. Then, in a couple months they can have the gathering they were hoping for.”

At Claussen Funeral Home in Lake Mills, meanwhile, owner Ken Claussen and his associate, Carla Claussen, weighed in on the coronavirus situation with its impact on funerals and visitations.

“We are exploring the options with families and will leave it up to them as to how they want to handle it (funeral service and visitation),” Ken said. “A lot of churches recently have the option of live-streaming funeral services — that’s an option for the family with their OK.”

Another option for mourners, he said, is deciding against even attending someone’s funeral.

But when they have been attending services of late, he said, a lot of people are not shaking hands or hugging — they are keeping their distance.

“Shaking hands is just kind of a natural thing to do,” Ken said. “It’s not even a good idea even to bump elbows.”

“Right now, we’re giving the family the option as to how they want to proceed,” Carla said. “We want to do what the families want, but we still have to be careful. And other times, it’s what the churches want to do.”

Both acknowledged that it is difficult to restrict people to 50 or fewer.

“We (at Claussen Funeral Home) have separate rooms set up, so not everyone is confined to one room,” Carla noted. “At a time when families need support, one family member said ‘I’ll take the risk ‘cause I need my hugs.’”

The people serving the luncheon are wearing gloves, she added, noting the precaution is “Better safe than sorry.”

Staff at Claussen Funeral Home also have sprayed all surfaces, door handles and faucets that people could touch with a sanitizing solution.

So far, no funeral services at Claussen have been delayed.

“We’re not equipped for live-streaming at this point,” Ken said of technology allowing funerals to be seen remotely. “An individual could have face-time (on a device), but we can’t (do that) for a mass crowd.”

And staff are leaving it up to everyone’s individual choice as to whether to attend a funeral or visitation.

“It’s an optional thing always for people to attend funerals,” Carla said. “If someone puts in the effort to show up, I’m not going to tell them they can’t come in. But we’ll take as many precautions as we can.

“We’re trying to minimize hand-shaking and hugging,” she added, “and have plenty of hand sanitizer available. “But it’s a good idea if someone is showing symptoms to just don’t attend and find another way to reach out to the family.

“We just tell families all the precautions, and if they still want to proceed as normal than that’s what we’re doing,” Carla concluded.

Meanwhile, Marti Daniels, manager of Nitardy Funeral Home in Fort Atkinson, Cambridge and Whitewater, said his staff still is working with the National Funeral Directors Association, as well as state and local authorities, to sort out how all the latest rules and regulations will affect the funeral industry.

“Of course, we’re still on-call 24-7 to answer any calls of deaths that would occur,” Daniels emphasized. “As far as services go, we’re just playing it by ear and will see what comes out next. It’s dictated by what is determined statewide and nationally as to what we’re able to do.”

As to social distancing, he said, his funeral home staff really has not had to address the issue.

“Once again, we’re working with our organizations to see their recommendations on these things,” Daniels said. “A lot of it is what the family’s desires are also.”

Everyone is aware of the coronavirus, he said, and how it is restricting everyone’s day-to-day social activities. And funerals are not excluded from taking precautions.

“Not only could they (mourners) get exposed, but they might expose themselves to others, and people might not be willing to do that,” Daniels said of someone’s decision to attend a funeral and visitation, or not. “There’s a lot of people who have a say in this — it would be the families we serve and what their comfort level is.”

Acknowledging that Nitardy Funeral Home locations generally have adequate space for social distancing, he said it still all depends on the size of the group attending services.

“Once again, we’re still waiting to hear back from our associations, our main office, and state and local authorities as to what’s the best way to deal with all that,” Daniels said. “And then what’s next?

“We already ready went from 50 to nine people (being allowed to gather as a group) in the span of a day,” he added. “Most families we deal with are more than nine people. So, what’s the definition of a crowd. The family itself could be the limit or beyond.”

Holding a smaller, more private funeral service and delaying a larger memorial gathering until a later date is an option that always has been on the table whether a virus is circulating or not, Daniels indicated.

“That’s something we do anyway,” he said of offering the option of having a smaller service. “That’s something we’re anticipating doing more of under the present circumstances.”

The manager reiterated that Nitardy Funeral Home’s 24-hour availability is something that cannot change — “we have to serve families in that way.”

Daniels said the funeral home might be starting to see some funerals being postponed, but really only in the past week or so.

And their cleaning routine, he said, has increased in frequency, he added, noting staff are stocking up on supplies as well.

Nitardy Funeral Home, the manager said, does offer the ability to live-stream services through its website, something staff are working on making more available to families.

And during consultations with a family when preparing a funeral, he said, Nitardy staff can assist with planning over the telephone, via email and online to obtain all relevant information.

“We have ways to work with them (families) without them actually having to come in (and sit down, face to face),” Daniels emphasized, adding staff are doing less shaking of hands. “In our dealings with the families, we’re trying to refrain from that. That’s just a mutual thing. People are aware of that, so everybody’s refraining from that.

“This is a strange situation … nobody’s really aware of what to do and how to do it,” he concluded. “And it’s changing day by day, so our reaction to it is changing day by day.”

Calls for comment made by the Daily Union to the Olsen-Gibson Funeral Home and the Schneider-Michaelis Funeral Home, both in Jefferson, were not returned by presstime.

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