For families and funeral homes, pandemic changes how Minot mourns

Pandemic leaves impact on funeral homes, grieving families

Jill Schramm/MDN Funeral director Ben Slind stands in the chapel in Thompson-Larson Funeral Home, Minot. Chair spacing keeps attendees social distanced.

“Understanding” is the term local funeral directors use to describe the families they have worked with during a viral pandemic that has slammed them with additional workload and altered the look of the traditional funeral.

Thompson-Larson Funeral Home and Thomas Family Funeral Home in Minot adopted COVID-19 protocols following North Dakota’s first confirmed case in Minot in March. Then the spiking of COVID-19 cases in October and November was accompanied by a rising death count that stretched funeral home capacity.

“That’s one of the most challenging things that a funeral home has to deal with is we have to be ready at a moment’s notice from one day to the next. We don’t know how busy we’re going to be so you know you have to have staff that you can depend on and a facility that will accommodate people, and we feel very, very good about where we’ve been,” Brad Thomas, a funeral director at Thomas Family Funeral Home, said this week as COVID-19 cases were on the decline.

The reality of the pandemic, though, has left its mark and continues to do so for grieving families.

“Anybody who’s going through a death during this time is struggling,” said Ben Slind, a funeral director at Thompson-Larson.

Jill Schramm/MDN Funeral directors Mark Roth and Brad Thomas stand under a banner of hearts, hung at Thomas Family Funeral Home in support of healthcare workers who have been at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic along with funeral homes.

Slind said he has seen small services for individuals in cases where churches might have been overflowing in different circumstances. He’s heard sadness in the voices of family members who commented they are unable to honor their loved ones the right way. But he’s also heard from other families who have found good things in the smaller services.

“I’ve seen some really beautiful things in the size of a smaller service,” said Mark Roth, a funeral director at Thomas Family Funeral Home. “It’s more intimate, and families are focused on each other, so you get some really beautiful moments in the midst of a smaller gathering.”

At a point early in the pandemic, funeral attendance was limited to 10 people. Depending on the capacity of the facility, attendance now can be up to 50 people.

“But we’re seeing a drastic reduction in the number of people attending funerals regardless, because people are being, I think, just so mindful with those (COVID) numbers and how they were spiking,” Slind said.

People often are choosing to use the visitation period to pay to their respects rather than attending the funeral. Graveside services can be larger as more people find the outdoors with social distancing a safer environment for showing their sympathy. Limits on funeral attendance have served to popularize streaming, both live and on-demand.

“In essence, we’re not changing the funeral rite, but attending remotely, in the comfort of your living room after work, is an option – convenience being part of that as well,” Roth said. Thomas Family Funeral Home aligned with a technology professional to provide that service.

Thompson-Larson reached out for technology advice and then invested in equipment, including high-definition cameras, to offer streaming.

Funeral homes have long offered videotaped services, and Roth said streaming is likely to remain another option after the pandemic. But most people will return to physical attendance so they can have that connection with the family, he said.

Slind said live streaming hadn’t been encouraged previously because the emphasis was on bringing people to the funeral to honor the deceased and support the family. Now, the advantages for people who can’t attend because of age or travel have become apparent.

“I have a feeling that we’ll be live streaming, probably from here on out,” Slind said.

Thomas said the desire of friends and neighbors to reach out to grieving families hasn’t changed with COVID-19 restrictions.

“I’m pleased to say that people are finding different ways to support the families, so that’s touched my heart that people are still concerned. Even though they’re not able to physically attend the service, they’re calling on the phone, they’re emailing an expression of sympathy, they’re sending a sympathy card,” he said.

Both funeral homes encouraged families who wanted to postpone services until the pandemic eased to hold smaller events in the short-term in addition to Celebration of Life events later.

“Something that we’ve tried to counsel families about is that sometimes it’s important to have some closure and have a service,” Thomas said. “Having had a family service or a graveside service at least gives them the peace of mind to know that things were properly cared for.”

The Minot funeral homes also have seen funerals delayed somewhat while family members get tested for COVID-19 or complete quarantines.

Zoom meetings replaced face-to-face meetings with families to get around quarantines. Slind said he bought an iPad to set up Zoom conferences with families, which went so well that he continued using remote conferences to work with families living out of state or who didn’t feel comfortable coming to the funeral home because of COVID-19 in the community.

More recently, families have had more opportunity to be at the bedside of a loved one dying from COVID-19, but early on, the families’ first opportunity to say good-bye often happened at the funeral home.

“There’s a lot of people that have a newfound appreciation for having the ability to say goodbye because there’s a lot of situations where family members haven’t been able to go to the hospital or haven’t been able to go to the nursing home because of the COVID, whether it was a restriction by the facility or they didn’t want to expose themselves to it,” Thomas said.

Slind said families have been so resilient.

“Sometimes I would just sit back and say, my gosh, if that were my family, I would not be handling this as well as they did. Maybe it was with how we approached it with them, but I’ve got to believe it’s both sides coming together to do what’s best for their loved one, and then just making sure they have the information they need,” he said.

Slind said he has felt bad at times in not being as responsive as he wanted to be, such as quickly returning phone calls, because of how busy things had become this fall.

“Fortunately, our Minot families and surrounding communities have been just absolutely wonderful to work with and have been very understanding,” he said.

COVID deaths in Ward County have been the highest in North Dakota, which ranked 10th among states nationally in COVID deaths per capita in November. Ward County had recorded 169 deaths during the pandemic as of Thursday.

Slind said staff worked more hours, either staying late or coming in earlier, to handle the additional workload. There were days they operated on a shortage of sleep, but they worked together as a team to ensure families were taken care of, he said.

“We’ve had people reach out to us that said, ‘hey, what can I do?’ We have one gal that has brought food in for us every Tuesday, and then others reached out with goodies or just ‘here’s a hot dish’ and or ‘here’s a soup,'” Slind said.

Thompson-Larson converted a storage room into an additional place to respectfully and securely keep the deceased.

Although Thomas Family Funeral Home didn’t add space, it did add equipment to its cooling facility in early October. Adding the equipment had been discussed prior to the pandemic because it allows for increased flexibility, particularly when funerals are delayed, Roth said.

As at Thompson-Larson, increased workload at Thomas was shared, with each staff member taking on a little more.

“That’s the life of a funeral director. You work when called upon,” Roth said. “We view it as a ministry. Service to people is what you do, and when they need you, you come.”

Staff members and part-time employees also pitched in where they could and helped out with duties that weren’t necessarily in their job descriptions.

“As a staff, I think we grew a little bit closer together, depending on each other,” Roth said.

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our staff,” Thomas said. “They put in countless hours and have been awakened in the middle of the night and have worked on weekends when they were scheduled to be off.”

Everyone also learned about efficiency and planning, Roth and Thomas said.

“We just had to be a little bit more creative in how we were doing things,” Thomas said. “I’m really proud of our staff in figuring out different ways to accommodate more cases and the busier schedule.”

He is grateful for the way families have responded as well.

“Families have been very, very understanding we found, if you just communicate,” Thomas said. “So it’s been heartwarming to see people working together to make it a meaningful experience.”

Roth said they are optimistic that the worst is past, but they also are ready if ever called upon again to the degree they were this past fall.

“Our care is urgent care. Death doesn’t have a schedule,” Roth said. “It’s a calling, and we’re ready to serve.”


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