Empty Funeral Homes

Allison Fredrick with Duesterberg Fredrick Funeral Home, 521 Vigo St., vacuums and empty parlor Friday morning. In these times of COVID-19, local funeral homes are largely empty as directors look to alternate ways of helping loved ones to say good-bye.

As Becky McDowell watched her father’s health decline in recent weeks, what brought her solace were thoughts of a funeral that would do justice to a life lived so well.

“My dad was one of those who always paid his respects to everyone he knew,” McDowell said of her father, Joe Farris, who died March 22 at the age of 89.

“Relatives, friends, co-workers, acquaintances he met through farming, paying his respects to those people was of the utmost importance to him.

“So it broke my heart immediately,” she said, the emotion swelling in her voice, “when I realized it wasn’t going to be that way for him, knowing so many people who wanted to pay their respects wouldn’t be able to. It hit me that this funeral — the one we had been planning — may not be the funeral we would have for my dad after all.”

McDowell and her family are among the many now dealing with a new, harsh reality — that saying good-bye to loved ones looks far different in this current COVID-19 world, one that prohibits groups of 10 or more, encourages “social distancing” of at least six feet and, essentially, brought the traditional grieving process to a grinding halt.

It’s left funeral directors, too, scrambling on what to do — how best to help families grieve.

“We’re explaining these new guidelines and letting the families decide from there,” said Tim Goodwin, one of the owners of Goodwin-Sievers Funeral Home, 524 Broadway St. “It’s tough, though. None of us like it. The families don’t want to do it this way, and neither do we.

“It’s just a bad situation for everyone involved.”

Goodwin said as local families suffering loss now come to them to make arrangements, they have been forced to hand over a new rule sheet in terms of what kind of funeral they can have, one based on recommendations made by the Indiana Funeral Director’s Association and in agreement with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s “stay at home” order as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggestions on group gatherings.

And its parameters are tight at best.

“We can only have an assembly of 10, and that includes the staff, a minister,” Goodwin said. “We know it’s not ideal, but we just have no choice right now.”

Recent funerals, Goodwin said, have been small and private, although they are using technology, specifically webcasting or even Facebook live videos, in an effort to include more people.

It is not what any of them had in mind.

“It’s definitely been a trying and emotional time,” McDowell said. “It was very hard for (Goodwin Funeral Home staff) to place those guidelines in front of us. But we knew they were doing the best they could. We knew that was what we had to work with.”

McDowell said they initially planned a graveside service for 50 people, one with military rites as Farris was a Korean War veteran.

But the next day, the CDC lowered the number of approved gatherings to just 10 people. So they were forced to go with an even smaller graveside ceremony instead.

And it wasn’t easy.

“There are five of us,” she said of herself and her siblings. “Then there are our spouses, ten grandchildren, many of the grandchildren are married

or have significant others. So obviously, that number rose very quickly above 10.”

Joe Farris’ best friend, a “prayer buddy,” McDowell said, had to be cut from the list as well as some cousins, musicians, who were going to play a collection of his favorite church hymns.

In the end, gathered around his casket, were his five children, a sister, the minister, a single guitar-player, someone to give military rites and another, final person, to record it on Facebook live for others to watch.

Most extended family watched from their cars nearby.

“There were a lot of tears,” she said. “We knew this wasn’t right for our father.

“And yet we understood.”

Prior to the graveside service, the Farris family held what is likely the first of its kind — a drive-thru visitation at their church, Community United Methodist.

They brought the casket to the church and placed it underneath a portico, his five children and sister spaced out evenly in front of it.

They brought his small farm tractor and positioned it at the entrance to the church as well as his beloved 1953 Chevrolet truck — a gesture that brought a lot of smiles to a lot of faces that day.

“People remember him driving down the road, hauling produce, in that truck,” McDowell said with a chuckle. “The community loved it. All the grandkids, too, have childhood memories riding in that truck.”

They had a steady stream of traffic, she said, each car coming through, its occupants rolling down their windows to offer a few kind words, and moving on.

“There were no handshakes, no hugs,” she said. “It was just people who knew my dad and wanted to pay tribute to him.”

Don Fredrick, owner of Duesterburg Fredrick Funeral Home, 521 Vigo St., said he, too, is learning to cope in a new reality. Funeral homes are now mostly empty as large gatherings — celebrations of life — are prohibited under the new CDC guidelines.

Currently, they’re limiting services to immediate family, and for the most part, people are handling it well. They understand these strange times we find ourselves in, Fredrick said.

“We’re giving the family as much time as they want,” he said. “That’s something I think we can do to help. So if they want to come in, spend an entire evening here, I don’t care. That’s easy.

“They are faced with loss, and it’s so sad they can’t share their grief with the general public, the friends of the person who has passed away. It’s like watching a funeral where no one shows up at all.”

Small, intimate funerals, Fredrick added, are often enough to bring closure to grieving families.

But for the public — for the friends who loved them — a void is left.

“But it is what it is,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “We all have to do what we can to get through this.

“We all have to make sacrifices.”

Sherry Smith lost her mom, Donna Baum, this week. Faced with new restrictions associated with COVID-19, she knew a big funeral wasn’t possible. Many family members, too, are sheltering in faraway cities; unable to make the trip.

So they’ve decided, instead, to wait until later, brighter times.

“It’s difficult because a funeral is part of the healing process,” she said of those who are left behind. “It’s healing to remember them, be around other people who loved them as much as we did and to share in stories, memories and laughs.

“But we can’t do that right now.”

Smith said she has, however, looked to technology, as have many others in this new COVID-19 age. Recently, they used the app Zoom to get together as a family, some 15 of them, to reminisce and share stories of the woman they so loved.

“That did help,” she said, “to fill a bit of the void.”

And for McDowell, there’s a piece of her that wonders if maybe — just maybe — her dad isn’t looking down and smiling at all of it.

“I remember standing there at the funeral that day, the sun coming down on me, looking at a photo of my mom and dad, farmers, just as the community would remember them. I looked at that picture and I thought, ‘I bet my parents are together now looking down on us and smiling.

“I bet they’re proud of how we acted in the face of adversity.”

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