Funerals Change Course In Age Of Pandemic

Judy Kramer
County Reporter
June Walthall, of Warsaw, died on Saturday, May 30, at 3:08 AM. Although she had many friends and relatives, attendance at her funeral on June 2 was limited to a small percentage of those who would usually have come to honor her life and comfort her widower Larry. Such has been the case for a lot of other loved ones of those who have died during restrictions related to COVID-19.
A article dated May 27, 2020 reported that families who have watched a loved one die, COVID-19 or otherwise, aren’t getting what they need in their time of grief. The ability to visit, touch and share a physical space is prevented by social distancing measures. Families might have to stay in the car or miss the burial completely, depending on the cemetery. Visitations are even trickier. Social distancing demands only immediate family attends a funeral, but how do you define “immediate family”? The article also reported that some funeral homes have resorted to telephone conferencing on Zoom, or using Skype to bring a family together online, and nurses are using their cell phones to let patients have video contact with their loved ones in their final hours.
The funeral for June Walthall was limited to family, and social distancing was practiced in the First United Methodist Church where it was held. There was a visitation, but people could not stand in line to shake hands with her husband. Visitors were greeted at the door to the Reser Funeral Home as they came in. A funeral dinner was hosted at the home of Marsha and Randy Eaton, but was only for the family and former banking co-workers of the deceased. The graveside service was the only portion of the funeral that was open to the public.
“We borrowed tables and chairs from the church for the dinner, and placed them outside in the shade where we could spread them out,” said Marsha Eaton. “We allowed anyone who wanted to come into the house to do so, but gave them the option of being more separated from close contacts if it made them feel safer. Larry had wanted a normal funeral where friends could come.”
Jim Miller, from Reser Funeral Home, said that earlier funeral home restrictions only allowed 10 or less friends and family in a room during a visitation. However restrictions are relaxing and each funeral is planned on a case-by-case basis depending on where funerals are located.  For instance, First United Methodist Church has more safety restrictions than some other local churches. However, the funeral home staff still follows guidelines of social distancing and reserves only every other row of seating at funeral services. And there is some individual monitoring according to safety concerns.
“We held a unique funeral in Lincoln recently,” said Miller. “We had a procession from the funeral home around Main Street and by the school. There were tractors in the procession because the deceased had been a farmer, and the fire department did a last call. It was what the family wanted and we utilized what we could to make the funeral personal.”
Miller said that the funeral home tries to celebrate what makes people unique. It is how the deceased can be recognized and celebrated creatively, even though it is still different from what used to be a norm, and that is okay.
“Actually, there have been ongoing changes to funerals before COVID-19,” said Miller. “In my grandfather’s day all funerals were the same. But, in my 20 years in the business, there have been changes in the types of funerals, and we have also had to practice health precautions similar to those being experienced in all businesses at this time. Thirty or 45 days ago, gravesite services were closed off.  Now we are not, but people are still practicing social distancing. There are still limitations. It is heartbreaking when something is missing like hugs and handshakes, and people gathering around the loved ones cannot be comforted as they need. It adds to the grief.”
June Walthall will be remembered by her friends and family as an outgoing and loving person, and by the community where she served as a banker, and volunteer. Some of her achievements include volunteering for the American Cancer Society and then becoming a charter member of the Benton County Cancer Fund to assist cancer patients in Benton County. For many years, June and her husband, Larry, volunteered many hours in organizing their fund-raising golf tournaments which has since been named the Larry and June Walthall Annual Benton County Cancer Fund Golf Tournament. June was a charter member of the Shawnee Bend Ladies Golf League and the Benton County Historical Society. Over 50 years ago, June and Larry organized and began the pitch club hosting the first game in their home.