Funerals and COVID-19, A Grave Situation

By Keith Skenandore
Managing Editor

Due to the “Safer at Home” executive order by Governor Tony Evers, funeral homes like Muehl-Boettcher have to limit the number of attendees for a loved ones funeral service. – Photo by Keith Skenandore

During Seymour resident Nancy Brinkman’s battle with ovarian cancer, she was brought home from Meadow Wood in late March to spend her final days with her loved ones.

That was about a week after Governor Tony Evers initially launched his Statewide moratorium of limiting mass gatherings of 10 people or more to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The family of Nancy Brinkman still had a thread of hope that Evers moratorium would be lifted, and while they waited, Nancy, 67, would lose her battle to ovarian cancer on April 3, one week after Gov. Evers implement the “Safer at Home” plan on March 25.

That plan launched on March 25 dashed the hopes of the Brinkman family providing a celebration of life for her.

“We pretty much knew that there would be limitations,” said John Lueck, Nancy Brinkman’s brother, as they began the planning of her funeral.

So funeral homes like Muehl-Boettcher in Seymour and Verkuilen-Van Deurzen in Freedom now face the difficult time of having to explain to families that funeral services can be held but with restrictions.

Funeral directors are charged under state law as a public health official and therefore are responsible for carrying out the issued Order that was put into place on March 17, 2020 limiting gatherings to a maximum of 10 people (nine including a funeral director).

So when it comes to the area funeral homes like Muehl-Boettcher and Verkuilen-Van Deurzen Family, making arrangements for families can be done, but with limitations.

“We must follow this order, just like any other law that is in place,” said Joel Walters, president/funeral home director of Muehl-Boettcher.

Funeral services will continue to take place. The manner in which they are held will need to be adjusted.

“Our staff will guide the family as to which options are available at the time of their loss,” said Walters.

Walters said that all funeral services taking place until the gathering order is lifted will be private. Families will have a choice to broadcast the funeral service live through Muehl-Boettcher Funeral Home’s page on Facebook utilizing the “Live” video functions if they wish. This information will be available on their website at www.muehlboettcher.com and their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MuehlBoettcherFuneralHome for each funeral service taking place.

“Any family we serve during the gathering ban will be provided the option to hold a public memorial visitation at our facility or a location of their choice with the full support of the funeral home staff at no charge to the family at a later date,” Walters said. “Muehl-Boettcher Funeral Home believes in caring for the community in the best way possible during this difficult time in our lives.”

Muehl-Boettcher Funeral Home has the functionality to make funeral arrangements remotely through the use of their online collaboration center and the use of screen sharing capabilities.

“We have spoken with quite a few families that are concerned what will the plans be,” said Walters. “We used our platforms of social media and our website to try to comfort the community knowing if they do suffer a loss that we’ll still be able to respect the wishes of their loved ones.”

For Derek Van Deurzen, owner/funeral director of Verkuilen-Van Deurzen Funeral Home, it’s affected his business, but it’s not how you think.

Verkuilen-Van Deurzen Family Funeral Home is also following the Governor’s orders in regards to attendees. They, along with Muehl-Boettcher, will both offer at no cost a memorial service to follow after the “Safer at Home” order is lifted. – Photo by Keith Skenandore

“It has affected more of the emotional side of this business, Van Deurzen said. “It affected us not being able to do what we’re supposed to do. That’s truthfully been the hardest part of this virus for me is that we’re not able to provide to families what families need and what they want.

“That’s the struggle.”

He said it’s the disappointment of people that want to see their loved one and have a public viewing that they just can’t offer at this time.

“A lot of people find that beneficial,” Van Deurzen said. “So to tell people they can’t do what they want, and for me to not be able to do what I feel is my job, to provide service to families and not be able to do it has been the hardest part.”

He said families have switched from a full public viewing and showing their loved one to just doing cremation because they can’t show them anyway.

Whatever the families choose, Van Deurzen said it’s all about closure.

“That’s exactly what we do,” he said. “That’s why we do funerals.”
Walters said when families can gather publicly, his facility and staff will be available for the families they serve at no cost.

But for now they must continue to serve with these limitations.

“We will be proceeding with burials and cremations just like we normally would,” said Walters.

Funeral homes ability to store bodies at their facility just isn’t in the best interest of everyone.

“The ability to store remains for an extended period of time, even though it’s possible, is not the best decision to be made in the interest of public health,” said Walters. “If we do have a spike in the death rate, that will put all funeral home facilities well beyond capacity.

Out east the death rate is much higher and they have taken extreme measures in storing of bodies.

Through the organized efforts of the Outagamie County Emergency Response Team, area funeral homes will work closely with local cemeteries and crematories to follow the wishes of the deceased and the family as quickly as possible.

“If a family would normally choose burial, we’re going to be working to have those burials as quickly as we can,” Walters said. “Our funeral home’s intention is not to rush through services, and we are working closely with cemeteries and churches to be more time efficient with a possible increase in deaths.”

It’s the unknown of this virus, whether it will be contained or a spike in those affected, and potential death increases, puts the funeral homes on stand by.

“We still will need to proceed with the burials,” said Walters. “Should we run into a serious spike in the death rate, all the facilities in Outagamie County combined cannot handle the capacity of new deaths.”

He did say that if they get in the second week of May and know the limitations will be lifted in the third week of May, that’s a different story.

“So it will be a day-by-day, a week-by-week decision making process as to when we can have public funerals,” he said.

Van Deurzen said they would not have an issue in regards to storing of the bodies if families want to wait beyond three weeks. There are several local cemeteries that have mausoleum space that they could store.

“Storage wouldn’t be an issue,” he said. “The issue is would their loved ones still look okay after three months.

“That would be the issue.”

Van Deurzen said it’s a temperature issue, however, if he could embalm the person and keep them in a refrigerator we could probably show them five to six months from now but refrigerator space is the key.

“That we don’t have a lot of.”

One thing Walters does know is that the rumor of someone who dies from the coronavirus and their body cannot be viewed by the family is absolutely false.

“That is not correct,” he said. “We can prepare their loved ones for burial or cremation just the same as we would have at any other time.

“The biggest concern at this point is the gathering of the number of people (10) which includes the funeral director.”

Walters, a member of the board of directors with the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association, said they clearly determined that they are at less risk caring for a deceased than they are being exposed to their families.

Van Deurzen said that some people are still choosing public visitations which they are unable to do at this time.

“After somebody is embalmed they should be able to be viewed quite a bit later,” Van Deurzen said, “but we don’t know right now what this quite a bit is.”

Since their doors have been closed, he said they have had families that have done an open casket viewing but that is limited to their 10 immediate family members.

“We have not had anybody yet that has really demanded, if they want to, hold the body until public service can be held,” Van Deurzen said. “If this is in three weeks from now we can easily show that person. But if we’re talking three to four months, now we might have a different story.

“Without having an end date, it doesn’t pay to hold people with the hope it would be done within a week or two.”

Those families have chosen to do the service much earlier, he said.

For those families, his funeral home has provided live streaming, Facebook live and other ways of sharing the experience so the more extended families can still watch and be a part of the service.

Van Deurzen said the numbers from their Facebook live shows that people are tuning in.
“We’ve had funerals where there have been 300-plus people watching at one time,” he said.

For the most part, families have chosen to do a viewing now and later when families can gather, do a celebration at that time.

Both Muehl-Boettcher and Verkuilen-Van Deurzen funeral homes have offered those type of post-celebrations at no cost.

“There will be zero professional service fees from Muehl-Boettcher Funeral Home for the memorial service to follow for the public,” Walter said.

Van Deurzen added, “I’m encouraging families to lean on us. We could to this (celebration) at their homes, at their church or even at a park.”

That is the route that the family of Nancy Brinkman had chosen.
Nancy’s husband Dennis, along with sons and daughter-in-laws Bruce (Lynn) Brinkman and Brian (Tiffany Lange) Brinkman met with Walters at Muehl-Boettcher and made the arrangements for the April 10 funeral service at New Life United Methodist Church.

“The funeral home couldn’t have been more supportive with the family,” said Nancy’s brother-in-law Stan Larkin. “I can’t speak more highly of Joel and the people with the funeral home of what they did with Nancy and the family.”

They knew that the service was going to be limited to 10 family members. In attendance was husband Dennis, their two sons and their wives, along with her sister Mary and her husband Stan Larkin, and John and his wife Caroline.

Granting Nancy’s wishes, her remains were cremated and John, 74, said Pastor Ho Lee, as they arrived at the church had the chairs spaced properly up on the altar in a semi circle with a flower atop of her beautifully boxed remains. Pastor Lee was able to speak directly to the family face-to-face.

“It was something else,” he said. “The neat thing was that it was more personal that we were able to relate to each other and were able to talk. We were able to tell each other stories.”

Brother-in-law Stan Larkin said in a way it was emotionally difficult.

“Nancy was such an outgoing vivacious type of person,” he said.

Stan, 77, added that the seating limitations also provided comfort in the sense that it was immediate family and that Nancy didn’t like a lot of fuss. He said she even told that to the funeral director.

“She liked things simple,” Stan said. “In that sense it was very reassuring that Nancy would have really liked it because it was simple and yet sincere. And yet it was hard because we know how much she was loved by so many people.

“That was the hard part for me because we couldn’t share that with other people.”

Nancy’s sister Mary Larkin, 77, said those were her sentiments as well.

“It was difficult,” said Mary. “She had a very beautiful service. We were all able to share our thoughts and memories at that time which I don’t think if we had a big service we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Stan agreed that the set-up made the service very intimate.

“That’s what Nancy loved is that closeness of family.”

Mary said there is more in the works regarding her sister’s passing.

“The family is planning on having a celebration of her life with family and friends, and church family,” she said as they wait for the order of the coronavirus to be lifted. “We haven’t made any arrangement yet.”

At the end of the service, a balloon release was held following a speech by Nancy’s granddaughter Emily Brinkman.

John said the balloon release was very moving.

“We watch as if angels were taking her to heaven,” he said.

Stan said it was difficult that other relatives and friends weren’t there to surround them with their love.

Mary said the comments of the other relatives and friends were missed.

“We didn’t know how they knew Nancy and the sharing of their stories,” she said.

“It helps with the closure,” said Stan.