Donna Kallner’s dad, Gene Matthews, made this box from two different wood species and connected them with an interlacing joint. He built the box to hold his remains and those of his wife, Virginia. Virginia, Donna’s mother, died earlier this month. Gene died in 2018. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

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Last summer when we lost our neighbor Ken Popelka, every pew was full during the service at St. Matthews Lutheran Church. My husband and I got seats on folding chairs in the lobby, and more chairs were set up for latecomers once the military honor guard procession was done. 

After the service, Bill and I helped clear those chairs to set up for the funeral dinner, which overflowed the dining room into the lobby and the Sunday school classrooms. Kenny was beloved in this community, so you can imagine the hugs and tears and more than a few peals of laughter as stories were shared by those who came to celebrate his life and show support for his family.

It may sound awful, but I’m glad for the family that Kenny died when he did. Because of Covid-19, you couldn’t have a send-off like that today. In a few years, movie scenes of what we think of as normal small-town funerals might seem as strange to us as pre-9/11 films where the hero runs through the airport to catch the girl just before she boards the plane.

The honor guard at the interment of Ken Popelka in 2019. Honor guards currently aren’t allowed under Wisconsin’s emergency pandemic provisions. (Photo by Jim Robinson)

As of May 7, there are still no confirmed cases of Covid-19 where I live in rural Langlade County, Wisconsin. That doesn’t mean it isn’t here, just that it hasn’t been confirmed by testing. It also doesn’t mean death has taken a holiday. People are still dying. Like other rural areas, our population skews elderly and our younger people are plagued by obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We have our fair share of overdoses and suicides. We have maybe less than our fair share of fatal motor vehicle accidents, thank goodness. 

We are grateful to have been overlooked by the coronavirus pandemic when other rural areas have been overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the virus has affected how we say goodbye to those we lose, whatever the cause of death. And that’s not just because of state orders on social distancing. It’s also to protect family members, caregivers, funeral home workers and others from a novel virus about which much is still unknown. 

It’s hard to guess when things might get back to normal, or what a new normal might look like. In the meantime, the rituals we observe when a loved one dies may not be possible. That was the case for me, when my mother died May 2 after a long illness. Here are some things to consider if you find yourself in a similar position.

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Have the talk. Now. It’s hard, but do it anyway. Get specific about what you and your loved ones want and don’t want. A great template for the talk is available from Five Wishes. We got free copies from our local hospital. My mother was difficult to pin down about her wishes, but on one thing she was crystal clear: Because of her own mother’s experience, Mom didn’t want a feeding tube — not ever. When she stopped eating, my sister and I were 100% in agreement about what to do (or in this case, what not to do) to honor her wishes. With more family members, more geographic distance, and social distancing that makes it harder than ever to know just how that isolated elder is really doing, now is none too soon to get specific. In writing. For example, Five Wishes prompts you to list the songs you want sung, or whether you prefer no songs be sung at the bedside and/or at the funeral.


Make room to improvise.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, I am amending my Five Wishes to reflect my overriding wish that those who make end-of-life decisions on my behalf know I understand if things can’t go according to plan. It’s OK — really. We had to improvise during my mother’s last days, and for me that was harder than her actual death. I stubbornly held onto the fantasy of a good death for her in the comfort of my presence. Anything less than that felt like I would be letting her down. Finally it became clear it wasn’t going to happen that way, and I had to make peace with that. Then we did what many other families are having to do: We sent videos so Mom could hear our voices. My sister played Claire de Lune on the piano. I sang Shall We Gather At The River and Down In The Valley. My cousin in Atlanta sang Amazing Grace, just as she had for Mom’s mom at a regular small-town funeral years ago, only this time from her own home. We weren’t together, but it was a great comfort to me to know that someone who so loved music was being lifted with a joyful noise.

When Ken Popelka died in 2019, neighbors lined the funeral procession route with tractors of every size and vintage. (Photo by Jim Robinson)

Be practical. While quarantines are in effect, some hospices are sending patients home to die so they can be surrounded by family. While my family’s history with hospice has been positive, a friend had a much different experience when her husband was dying at home. For her, it wasn’t enough help and she suffered terribly, both physically and emotionally. And that was before. With the added isolation of pandemic restrictions, the families of terminally ill patients may have to make hard choices. And we all fear that others will judge us, whatever we do. They may. But I suspect many who declare, “I would never… sure hope they don’t have to make those hard decisions themselves. 

Take some time. Everything seems to take longer when you’re carrying the burden of grief. When you are shattered and exhausted and the extended family is waiting to hear what you’re doing for a funeral and all you want is a cup of coffee and 20 minutes of peace, I guarantee there will be a long line at the drive-up. That can be an extra 20 minutes of peace, but probably only if you silence your cell phone. If responding to voicemails and texts later is just as daunting, you might as well get them over with. But a walk, a nap, a bath, a change of clothes, a hot meal, a cup of tea — all can work wonders at restoring enough energy to get you through the long hours and hard days ahead.

Glitches happen. You’ve come to accept technical difficulties when you work or do school from home in a rural area. Or maybe accept is too strong a word and I should say we are resigned to glitches. Well, they happen in funerals, too. The pastor’s head is out of the frame on the Facebook live feed. Oh well. At least the elderly aunts who wouldn’t have been able to travel to the service even if it had been open to more than 10 people got to attend. Sort of. If you’re the family member tasked with managing the iPad during the livestream, my heart goes out to you. Thank you for doing your best to explain to your 4-year-old and your mother-in-law with dementia what this all means.

Accept help. Your friends and neighbors need to help. It’s what we do. Mine have honored local traditions beautifully with deliveries of hotdish casseroles, cookies, flowers, plants and sympathy cards. One friend thoughtfully included six packages of thank-you cards so I wouldn’t have to shop for them. Hospice called to see how I’m doing, and I know I can call their bereavement counselor any time. My husband went to the market for ice cream. Twice. With or without a pandemic, losing a loved one requires ice cream in my family. Your mileage may vary. But I hope you find something to soothe you while you get through this, whatever it looks like when your turn comes.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin.