Local funeral homes faced with new challenges, as virus alters ceremonial tradition

The front of Will Funeral Chapel in Mitchell, located at 210 E. Green Dr. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

In Terry Rietveld’s 30 years of working in the mortuary sector, never has he experienced such drastic changes to the funeral ceremony process than what he’s witnessed over the past month.

From having to wear more protective gear while embalming bodies to limiting the number of family members and friends attending a burial or ceremony, nearly every aspect of the funeral process has changed since the COVID-19 virus swept across the country and into the Mitchell area.

“Since the virus began spreading and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) came out with the social distancing guidelines, the Sioux Falls diocese was the first to announce they would no longer do wake services at the church, along with no longer doing masses for more than 10 people,” said Rietveld, who serves as the funeral director for Will Funeral Chapel in Mitchell. “All of the sudden, we have people who have lost a loved one and can only have 10 people, they have lost a little bit of their network of friends and family to help through the grieving process.”

Considering family sizes widely vary among those preparing for a funeral, Rietveld said it has been difficult helping families with deciding who the 10 family members or friends will be.

While Will Funeral Chapel has adapted to the changes to the best of the funeral home’s abilities through recording the ceremonies and visitations and posting them on its website for loved ones to watch, Rietveld said it’s just not the same.


“What a lot of families have done is holding a private family committal that involves the embalming and burial of their loved ones, or they have cremated them to have a remembrance or memorial service in the future when it is possible,” Rietveld said.

In a first, Rietveld recently held a full-on funeral outside to allow for more than 10 people to be a part of the ceremony. The attendees were told to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

That process has added more challenges for Rietveld and his staff, because he can’t predict whether another funeral or burial will be taking place that far out in advance. In addition, Rietveld said the grieving and healing process for families who lost a loved one can go awry and cause more grief.

“For some families who have just experienced the loss of a loved one and they have gone through a little bit of the healing process and the scab is formed, we are then ripping that scab right off again when we get to the remembrance and memorial service,” he said.

Although Bart Fredericksen, owner of Bittner Funeral Chapel in Mitchell, has been adjusting to fit the needs and follow new guidelines for the funeral ceremonies he and his staff orchestrate, it hasn't been easy.

As someone who naturally likes to shake hands and give hugs to the individuals attending a funeral, Fredericksen said it’s difficult to sideline those empathetic practices.

“The saddest change is how some of the family members and friends can’t take part in the funeral, ” Fredericksen said. “But it’s really tough not being able to hug and shake hands when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one.”

Although Bittner Funeral Chapel has been adapting to the changes well thus far, Fredericksen and his staff are eager for the traditional funeral ceremony style to come back around for families who have experienced the death of a loved one.


Embalming changes

The embalming process -- which entails licensed morticians like Fredericksen and Rietveld removing blood from a body and injecting fluid to preserve the body for the funeral and burial -- has required more precautionary measures since the virus outbreak.

“We take the standard precautions as always, but we have more face masks, bodysuits and make sure we are very careful and conscious of washing hands and removing the protective gear after we are done,” Fredericksen said.

Since the novel coronavirus began causing fatalities across the nation and globe, Fredericksen said there have not been concrete answers as to how long the virus can stay active in a dead body and have the potential to be transmitted from a corpse. Thus far, Fredericksen hasn’t embalmed a body that had confirmed cases of COVID-19, but that could change as the death toll from the virus rose to seven for the state of South Dakota on Thursday afternoon, according to the state Department of Health.

“We just don’t know the exact answer to that, because there are some pathologists and infectious disease doctors who say the virus can stay in the body for up to 10 days, while there have been other infectious disease experts claiming the virus dies when the body dies,” Fredericksen said. “Regardless, we just take extra precautions to avoid spreading.”

With the volume of deaths that occur in nursing homes, Rietveld said the process of transporting a body from a nursing home has looked a lot different. Usually, Rietveld was able to enter the nursing home and secure the corpse, but he said he has to wait at the door now and take care of things outside away from close proximity to the elderly people living in the nursing homes.

Trickle down effect

As each funeral and burial typically involves flower decorations, luncheons and gatherings at a facility or rental space either before or after the ceremony, Rietveld said floral and food catering businesses have felt the impact on the changes since the virus outbreak.

“We’re not having big funerals right now, so there are much less flowers and food being purchased, cutting into those respective businesses,” Rietveld said.

The process of family members choosing a grave site at the local cemetery usually involves a larger number of the family members who have lost a loved one, Rietveld said. The vault companies that are responsible for more of the burial aspects of funerals have also been affected by the changes brought on by COVID-19, as they use to provide a lot more chairs and tents for the attendees.


Despite the changes, Rietveld said family members and friends of deceased loved ones gathering for a funeral have made the best of the ceremonies since the virus changed the typical traditions.

“It’s been challenging, but some families and friends of loved ones who have passed are making the best of it, which is all you can do,” he said. “I’m hopeful things can get back to normalcy.”

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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