Coronavirus is changing how we grieve, hold funerals

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How we grieve – often by holding a large gathering to celebrate a life – is changing during the coronavirus outbreak. 

With limits being placed on gatherings and businesses closing, funerals are being rethought to restrict attendance. 

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers ordered that gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people in an effort to curtail the coronavirus outbreak Tuesday afternoon. Three people in Wisconsin have died from COVID-19. 

Funeral homes are adapting to reduced attendance for end-of-life celebrations. They are asking families to consider a smaller funeral or waiting until after the pandemic to hold a large memorial service.

"Irrespective of (the restrictions), you're going to have deaths," said John Maher, the director of Brett Funeral Home. "So we have to keep working the best that we can. ... May there be an increase? I'm afraid to say there likely will be."

Religious services will change to allow for social distancing. The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee is not holding funerals. Bishop Steven A. Miller said in a letter that "until the time of social distancing can be ended" that there would be no funerals.

Miller wrote that priests could officiate at graveside services, while being aware of the number of attendees. Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will still be able to hold funerals, but attendance will be limited. Rabbis have said that they will likely stop sitting shiva at someone's home in the event of a death.The Islamic Society of Milwaukee said in a letter that its mosque was closed, and funeral prayers could not be performed there. Funeral prayers could be held at a funeral home with just family members, the Islamic Society said, or preferably at the cemetery. 

Maher said he understands people's need for closure, but there are other ways to get closure than risking contracting coronavirus at a large service.

"Here's a death, and you don't want to have more of them because of a funeral," Maher said. "You don't want to take a bad situation like a death of whatever nature and make it worse."

Maher said much of Brett Funeral Home's work is done on behalf of other funeral homes, cremation or small services.

Brett Funeral Home does not have the capability of doing a virtual funeral, but Maher said he envisions people recording funerals to later send to loved ones.

"We always have had visitors who have recorded it in some fashion and send it, for instance, out of the country," Maher said. "It had nothing to do with COVID-19. It was visa issues. So this has been done for a long time."

Jeff Kleczka, co-owner of Prasser-Kleczka Funeral Home, said he is asking people to avoid attending a funeral if they do not feel well and consider alternatives to physical embraces like putting a hand over one's heart or bowing.

Kleczka said if a family wants to do a smaller ceremony right away, an additional memorial service at a later date would come "with little to no expense to them."

Prasser-Kleczka is also being "even more so vigilant" in sanitizing common surfaces like door handles and railings.

"This is the history of funeral homes and funeral service," Kleczka said. "Our profession always adapts. We always do what we have to do for the families that we help."

Follow Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Sarah Hauer on Twitter: @SarahHauer


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