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Funeral homes find ways to serve families despite pandemic

Mary Brennan, owner of Kevin Brennan Family Funeral Home in Topeka and a parishioner of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, said technology has helped to ease the pain of separation for families. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MARC ANDERSON

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

COVID-19.

The virus has affected all aspects of daily life — even how people are allowed to mourn the loss of their loved ones.

It’s not something most Catholics think about unless they’ve lost a loved one to COVID. But a trio of individuals — Mary Brennan, Steve Pierce and Rick Wiseman — think about it every day. They represent some of the funeral directors and owners throughout the archdiocese who work hard to keep up with a slew of ever-changing governmental guidelines and directives.

For example, Rick Wiseman of Porter Funeral Home and a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Lenexa, said the funeral home’s two locations have meant keeping up with multiple levels of governmental directives on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border.

“It truly has been a challenge. Because we are situated close to the state lines of Kansas and Missouri and then have counties that have their own rules, it has been a daily procedure to check and see what the rules are,” he said.

“And because we go into different churches, they have also had different rules concerning how many people are allowed, will they allow a visitation at the church [and] how early we can arrive for the Mass,” Wiseman continued. “If they have had a daily Mass before the funeral Mass, they then have to disinfect the church.”

Besides regularly disinfecting the funeral home, staff members wear masks, maintain proper social distance, open doors and stand near sanitizing stations, reminding everyone to sanitize prior to entering the chapel or church.

When receiving or transferring bodies, staff members also don gloves, gowns and face shields. And while all the steps have been necessary ones to keep everyone safe and healthy, they require time and intentional planning. Even the smallest of details does not go by unnoticed.

For example, Pierce, who belongs to St. Thomas More Parish in Kansas City, Missouri, said long before the pandemic, he and his staff started buying individual packets of tissues for anyone needing to wipe a few tears. Brennan said her staff replaced the upholstered chairs in the main chapel and overflow rooms with hard ones, making it easier for disinfecting.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges this spring arose when state and local government officials enacted travel restrictions and strict size limits for public gatherings.

“Early on, when we were only allowed to have 10 people attend a funeral which also included the priest and two of our staff,” Wiseman said, “it was so heartbreaking to see families have to choose who could attend and who couldn’t.

“We would let families come into the funeral home 10 at a time, and then we would clean the funeral home before allowing the next group in. This way we could at least have them get that time they needed with their loved one.”

“In some instances,” Wiseman continued, “where their loved one had been in a nursing home and the family hadn’t been able to see them for months, we made sure that they could come to the funeral home and spend as much time as they needed with them. It wasn’t perfect, but we tried to make the best of a difficult time.”

In addition to rotating groups of 10 and cleaning the funeral home in between the groups, the funeral homes leaned (and are leaning) heavily on technology.

Mary Brennan, owner of Kevin Brennan Family Funeral Home in Topeka and a parishioner of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, said technology has helped to ease the pain of separation for families.

Mary Brennan stands in front of Kevin Brennan Family Funeral Home in Topeka. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MARC ANDERSON

“The terribly sad thing for families was that here they are in this very, very hard time dealing with the death of a loved one and, by the way, you can’t have a funeral or, by the way, you can have a funeral, but you can only have 10 present. That includes the celebrant, musician and the funeral directors. It was exceedingly hard for our families.”

Still, her staff found a way to serve.

“When we started livestreaming funerals on our Facebook page,” she said, “that helped immensely.”

Recalling one of the first services livestreamed, Brennan said the technology helped unite a man’s grandchildren.

“None of the grandchildren could be there because they were scattered all over the country and we were in a shutdown mode,” she said. “I was so glad that we had that technology available to us.”

Pierce, owner of Skradski Funeral Home in Kansas City, Kansas, said that livestreaming services was not something his funeral home had planned on doing this year.

But the pandemic shifted everyone into higher gear.

“Necessity was the mother of invention,” said Pierce. “We had talked about it, but so many of the churches didn’t have Wi-Fi.”

When the pandemic hit, however, it forced many churches to install Wi-Fi to allow for livestreaming of weekend Masses.

“We’ve heard feedback, and we see feedback because we can tell the number of people watching, and it also gives them the ability to send a message to the family,” he added.

Brennan said her staff leaves the service posted on the Facebook page. If people cannot watch the service live, they can view it later.

Additionally, her late husband, Kevin Brennan, invested in a portable sound system years ago. She and her staff use it regularly at the graveside services, allowing more people to come but still maintain social distance.

One might think, due to the unusual circumstances, that most arrangements are made via email or over the phone. Surprisingly, though, that’s not been the case.

“We have had most families come into our buildings to make arrangements,” Wiseman said. “We have taken a lot of families into our reception area, which has an eight-foot round table that allows for social distance.”

“The families have been grateful they can come in and do it in person,” Brennan said.

But one thing funeral home staff still have to refrain from is perhaps the hardest of all.

“This is a time when people want to embrace each other, and it’s very hard when you open the door to see someone not to reach out to them — not to shake their hand,” Pierce said.

“Of course, that’s what we want at this time,” Brennan agreed. “Typically, when we’re hurting, those hugs and those handshakes are all so consoling and so helpful, and the presence of friends is also helpful and consoling to us.

“But when you know it is your responsibility at the funeral home to keep people safe, it’s so hard.”

About the author

Marc & Julie Anderson

Marc & Julie Anderson

Freelancers Marc and Julie Anderson are long-time contributors to the Leaven. Married in 1996, for several years the high school sweethearts edited The Crown, the former newspaper of Christ the King Parish in Topeka which Julie has attended since its founding in 1977. In 2000, the Leaven offered the couple their first assignment. Since then, the Andersons’ work has also been featured in a variety of other Catholic and prolife media outlets. The couple has received numerous journalism awards from the Knights of Columbus, National Right to Life and the Catholic Press Association including three for their work on “Think It’s Not Happening Near You? Think Again,” a piece about human trafficking. A lifelong Catholic, Julie graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary Grade School and Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka. Marc was received into the Catholic Church in 1993 at St. Paul Parish – Newman Center at Wichita State University. The two hold degrees from Washburn University in Topeka. Their only son, William James, was stillborn in 1997.

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