South Dakota funeral homes adapt to serve grieving families during pandemic

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — So far COVID-19 has claimed more than 1,500 lives in South Dakota. Each one of those people left behind grieving loved ones and friends.

“It’s just so much harder to do the things we used to do,” Said funeral Director Jon Salberg.

So many families are making funeral arrangements and funeral homes around the state are busier than ever. At George Boom Funeral home in Sioux Falls, the staff has been putting in long hours. It’s not uncommon to have five services in a day instead of two.

And those services now, look a lot different than they did a year ago.

Funeral Director Phil Schmitz said, “We can’t give the hugs, you know the social distancing is quite a bit more, we’re not having that fellowship time after services which is where a lot of the healing, the stories, the laughter and so forth takes place.”

Fellow Funeral Director Jon Salberg is known for his comforting nature and at 6’4″, his bear hugs.
Now, he can’t do them.

“Now I’ve got to replace that with a fist bump at best or an elbow bump.”

Besides the medical community, no one has seen the impact of COVID-19 more than those in the funeral industry.

“We are trying everything we can to make it a meaningful event, and a therapeutic event for them and those a lot of those things that we used to do with the closeness of people we used to do we can’t do anymore,” said Salberg.

Funeral homes across the state are handling normal business with deaths from the pandemic.
At one point back in October and November, there was a waiting list for families who wanted to have their loved one cremated. So George Boom is installing new equipment.

“We will be able to accommodate up to 16 cremations a day, as opposed to 4 per day. And we do a lot of work for other area funeral homes, so it’s not just our loved ones that we’re taking care of, we’re doing them for others in the eastern South Dakota, so that’s where the back up came,” said Schmitz.

Mitch Steinhoff of Brookings, is a board member for the South Dakota Funeral Directors Association. He says statewide funeral directors are often working together, despite competition.

“There was a lot of collaboration during our busy times if we couldn’t go out on a call right away, or if we needed extra help during a funeral it just seemed like statewide everybody was willing to help collaborate,” said Steinhoff.

One of the biggest changes for funeral homes is the emergence of livestream technology.

Schmitz says they recently held a funeral for a person from Australia and because of technology they were able to include a lot of family and friends thousands of miles away.

“We had more people watching from Australia than we did here at the ceremony, and I think it was a good experience for them,” said Schmitz.

Large gatherings aren’t possible but the parking lot fills up when there are several funerals overlapping. And while the business side is good, funeral directors are just as anxious as everyone else to see the pandemic in the rearview mirror.

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