funeral pic

Jo Johnston, a funeral director with Billings, stands in one of the empty chapels in the Elkhart funeral home.

ELKHART — Betsy Hershberger didn’t want her father’s funeral to be overshadowed by worries over a pandemic, or to put any of the attendees’ health at risk.

That’s why Fredrick Hershberger’s family made the difficult decision to postpone the 82-year-old’s funeral, indefinitely, following his death March 10.

It’s a decision many people in Elkhart County find themselves faced with, as protective measures against the spread of COVID-19 continue to grow more strict. No large gatherings are allowed and travel is discouraged, risky or banned in some cases, thanks to a virus that’s dominating every conversation.

“We didn’t want everybody concerned about the coronavirus and talking about it, and that overshadowing my dad. We felt he deserved more respect than that,” Betsy Hershberger said. “My mom’s older and so were all of their friends, and we didn’t want to put them at risk with drawing people in from different areas. He wouldn’t want that. So we tried to think about what he wanted.”

He would want a service that’s uplifting, his family concluded. A time for stories to be shared and “Taps” to be played in honor of the 101st Army Airborne veteran.

Now, not only does the cancellation leave them in limbo, Betsy Hershberger said, it also means they’ll have to go through the experience again whenever they are able to arrange a funeral.

“People want to gather, they want to remember their loved one and that sort of thing,” said Jo Johnston, a funeral director with Billings Funeral Home. “That’s part of the whole process of losing someone and then recovering and healing, is having your friends and your family to come together to try to kind of help you get through this. It’s completely opposite of what we’re used to and what we like to do for families.”

Uncharted territory

Fredrick Hershberger’s obituary says the services have been postponed “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Other obituaries are specific about the coronavirus being the cause, and describe a scaled-down visitation where people are required to keep a few feet apart from each other.

Johnston said they give people options for their funeral service, but also remind them of the restrictions that are in place and the suggestions that are out there to keep from possibly spreading coronavirus. He said many people have been accepting of it.

“We’re not forcing anything on the families, but we’re strongly suggesting that maybe it would be smart for us to follow state guidelines and that sort of thing,” he said. “Now you’ve got contagion scare, you’ve got people that are uncertain about what to do, so there’s just that much more stress put on folks who are trying to figure out what to do with their loved one. ‘Well, mom always wanted the big funeral, but maybe we shouldn’t because of the guidelines.’”

For those who choose to delay a funeral service, he noted that embalming and especially the prevalence of cremation in the county help make it possible. He expects cremation might grow from two-thirds of their services to an even larger share under the “new normal.”

Meanwhile, for those who choose to proceed, he said they’re exploring options like online streaming so more people can participate from home.

It’s all uncharted territory, Johnston remarked, which funeral homes are trying to navigate along with many other industries.

“It’s unprecedented for just about every business,” he said. “Nobody really knows what to do or expect.”

‘Waiting and looking’

The bridal industry is taking a hit as well, as weddings planned for the next few weeks are being pulled from the calendar and penciled in months down the line.

“It’s huge,” said Elvera Miller Yoder, who manages the event venues Rock Run Creek and J. Weaver Barn. “We’re talking caterers, DJ, the cosmetology that comes out and does makeup and hair. Even the tux shop.”

She’s received a lot of calls herself from couples who were looking forward to a spring wedding.

“April, I have weddings scheduled and those have to be rescheduled. The brides at this point are just waiting and looking at what June will bring,” she said. “I will accommodate them in any way possible... They will not be out of any money, absolutely not.”

She said May and June are currently booked up at both venues, while July and November still have a few days open.

“Other than that, I’m full,” she said. “I’m just hoping this thing will pass. I hope it doesn’t go through June, because that’s going to be really, really difficult.”

The postponements have left a lot of sadness, but Miller Yoder said the couples have still shown a lot of understanding. She also said she would understand if they feel the need to go to a different venue.

“I’ve been so thankful, up to this point everyone has been so gracious, and I have been so thankful,” she said. “Because that has not always been the case when I am talking to some other venues.”

Other couples have decided on an extremely pared-down event, with as few as 10 people. Miller Yoder said after settling for a small ceremony, they plan to come back and have a reception later.

“It may not be what they dreamed of, it may not be what they wanted, but we will do the very best we can to accommodate them,” she said.

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