Oglesby pastors will conduct funeral services for five people who died during the pandemic’s peak and without public church services. A La Salle funeral home has 12 families still waiting for in-church rites. A Peru funeral home has 17 families waiting.
John Hurst owns Hurst Funeral Homes in La Salle, and he said the state’s Phase 4 reopening couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Earlier in the pandemic, he buried and cremated the dead and then broke the news to families they could do graveside services or family-only rites inside churches with a maximum 10 people present – admittance of friends and neighbors was off the table.
As of Friday, however, the head count limit for funerals was raised to a more manageable 50 – “I think 50 people is perfect” – and churches can host funeral rites with half the pews full. Hurst already has begun scheduling make-up services for families that buried their dead in March or April but were forced to grieve alone.
Now comes the tricky part: How to get people in mourning to practice social distancing, which still means standing 6 feet apart. Hurst might wince a bit seeing mourners shake hands and embrace, but he won’t rush in to stop them, either.
“It’s hard to tell people not to hug their families or to shake hands,” Hurst said, although he’ll take other steps to reduce infection from the coronavirus. “We have the hand sanitizer and the masks at the table, and we keep the door open to bring in some fresh air.”
Other funeral directors also welcomed the more expansive Phase 4 rules but agreed they’ll walk a tightrope admitting larger crowds while also trying to remind people, however gently, that the pandemic is ongoing.
Doug Barto is co-owner of Barto Funeral Home in Spring Valley. He said they’ve looked to the churches for clues about how to manage the flow and spacing of foot traffic inside their funeral homes in Spring Valley and DePue.
“I don’t want to put up duct tape barriers throughout our funeral home,” Barto said, “but maybe we’ll put in stanchions to direct people or put a barrier between the families and the guests to build an artificial 6-feet barrier.
“It’s going to be a learning process, and I think we’ll learn a little bit more each time.”
Jason Maus is a funeral director at Mueller Funeral Home in Peru. He, too, is girding himself for the task of gently reminding mourners to wear surgical masks, clean their hands and stand apart from those whom they’d otherwise embrace.
To that end, Mueller Funeral Homes is spacing out chairs and positioning the tables loaded with PPE near the doors in hopes guests instinctively will help themselves upon entry. People are, of course, weary of infection controls and Maus cannot rule out the possibility of pushback to wearing a mask.
“But given what we’ve just gone through, this will be kind of refreshing,” Maus said. “I think people will be thankful that we can finally do these things.”
The demand is and will continue to be significant. Maus said he has a backlog of 17 families that buried their dead months ago with few rites and fewer mourners present. It’s going to be a busy summer.
The Very Rev. Gary Blake is optimistic people will abide by social distancing when he makes Holy Family Church in Oglesby open for visitation and to larger crowds for services. Both the pews and the flooring have temporary markers directing people how far apart to sit and stand in prayer or while awaiting Holy Communion.
Blake checked his ledgers and counted five families that want a make-up date in his church. Some couldn’t procure a funeral Mass at all. Others accepted the 10-person limit but now want a larger memorial service to accommodate friends and extended family.
Either way, the volume of make-up Masses won’t be overwhelming. Blake cannot anticipate how many funerals he will have by year’s end, but the pace so far is manageable.
“It’s not unusual for pastors to do 20 to 40 funerals a year,” he said, “and some have a lot more depending on the age of the community.”