Grocery stores, child care facilities, and gas stations are just some of the businesses that will remain open under Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer At Home” order, which took effect this morning.
In Wisconsin, licensed funeral directors are considered public health officials, so funeral homes and cemeteries are also considered “essential” businesses under Governor Evers’ order.
At this time, funerals in Wisconsin aren’t exempt from the prohibition on “mass gatherings,” defined as a “gathering of ten or more people,” but funeral services may be held indoors if there are nine or fewer people present at a time.
James Olson owns Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, and is the immediate past President of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association.
According to Olson, if a burial is held outdoors, it’s less clear what restrictions apply.
“Unfortunately, right now, there is no clear definition of what we can do outside [because] the mandates are all for inside. So, in a confined space that’s less than ten people,” Olson says. “Outside, as long as there is social distancing of at least six feet, we haven’t been given an exact number. Now, today for example, I got a mandate from one of our local cemeteries, the city municipal cemetery here in Sheboygan, that is limiting it to ten people. We have a mandate from a different cemetery that says less than twenty-five people. So, the cemeteries are starting to say what that number could be.”
Shedd Farley is the Director of the Farley Center for Peace, Justice & Sustainability, a nonprofit organization in Verona that operates a cemetery. Farley says the center is limiting gatherings, such as one held earlier today, to an even smaller number than is allowed.
“In the past we’ve had burials with well over a hundred people attending. Many times it’s 50 or 60 people, and occasionally it’s just 2 or 3. Now, we are limiting it to those 2 or 3,” Farley says. “That’s really not because that makes it safer for us handling a body, it’s more for that distancing policy that we are being very strict about complying with.”
Farley adds that the center, which is usually open to visitors after burials, will remain closed with few exceptions.
Pete Gunderson, meanwhile, is a licensed funeral director and President of Gunderson Funeral Home in Madison. Gunderson says that the funeral home is offering video recordings and other creative solutions to include folks who can’t attend a service.
“[Friends and relatives] can go to our website [and] leave a message on the obituary pages. We’re going to print those out and put those on chair with a big bow, and when a family arrives, they’re going to know that you’re present,” Gunderson says. “You’re not there physically, but you are there with your spiritual and emotional support for them.”
Burial services in Wisconsin may be changing, but some things are business as usual.
Michael D. Sharkey, a licensed funeral director and general counsel for the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association, says that health and safety measures, for example, are largely the same.
“Funeral directors in the state of Wisconsin, as they do everywhere, are already under an obligation to practice what’s called ‘universal precautions’,” Sharkey says. “That’s under OSHA’s blood-borne pathogen standard. So, that’s why you seen funeral directors gowned up and wearing a mask, and they would do that whether or not there was a COVID-19 pandemic or not.”
While some countries are considering implementing mandatory, immediate cremation of those who die from COVID-19, Sharkey also says the science does not show that funerals are unsafe.
Governor Evers’ “Safer At Home” order remains in effect until Friday, April 24 or until a superseding Order is issued.
Thanks to Gil Halsted for providing a tip to our news team about this story.