After 15 months of postponed and online funerals, Simonet Funeral Home in Stillwater, Minn., found itself back up and running in a big way earlier this month.

On June 11, more than 225 people packed into St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Stillwater to honor and celebrate the life of longtime north Washington County dairy farmer Bill Reuter, who had died a week earlier at the age of 83. The night before Reuter’s Mass of Christian burial, more than 300 people attended his visitation at Simonet.

“It was our first test to see how things would go, and everything went great,” said funeral director Jason Haley. “It’s good to be back.”

The funeral home has been busy over the past weeks “catching up and doing funeral services that have been postponed for months and months” because of COVID-19, he said.

Simonet is not alone.

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According to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2020 Cremation and Burial Report, about 23 percent of families have postponed services and intend to have some type of service with the assistance of a funeral director at a later date.

“It’s important for people to have these services and memorialize their loved ones even if it’s a year later,” Haley said.

Arlene Agnes died of complications related to COVID in November 2020. Her family gathered this past month to remember their matriarch. Agnes, who was 93 when she died, loved strawberry ice cream.

After her May 23 memorial service at Mattson Funeral Home in Forest Lake, Minn., an ice-cream truck pulled up outside and an employee dished out individually wrapped packages of strawberry ice cream to the attendees, said Jessica Dukich, Mattson funeral director.

“It was the perfect way to remember her,” she said. “That’s what funerals are for: It’s about remembering the person, celebrating their life and being there for their family.”

Learning from challenges

COVID-19 posed many challenges to the funeral industry with postponed services, no visitations and no receptions, Haley said. Those, in turn, had an impact on churches, florists, caterers and other funeral-related services, he said.

Mattson Funeral Home is slowly seeing a return to in-person funerals, but people are still being cautious, Dukich said. “I think people are still nervous about gathering. We don’t require masks, but people still are wearing them when they come in.”

One major change because of COVID is the rise in popularity of online and live-streamed services. According to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2020 report, almost half of the 646 respondents said their firm would continue to offer live-streaming options once the pandemic is over.

Mattson Funeral Home staff can track where people log in from to view funeral services broadcast on their website, Dukich said. “We’ve seen people from Alaska and Hawaii — just crazy amounts of people; that’s such a nice thing,” she said. “They’re people who wouldn’t normally be able to go, but they can still be a part of it. We even had someone in Peru who watched the service … and someone from Africa.”

But Haley said family meetings after a death are hard to hold online. “It was so difficult to have those meetings and give the families information that was needed — selecting caskets and urns from catalogs versus being able to see them in the building,” he said. “The level of support that we are able to give a family is not the same over digital media versus in person.”

A proper farewell

Mark Reuter said he and his sisters feel grateful that their father died after the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

“I don’t know if you really get closure until you get through that whole funeral process,” Mark Reuter said. “It definitely helped with the healing. We heard lots of stories from colleagues that we wouldn’t have heard otherwise.”

Bill Reuter died June 4 of complications related to a small-bowel obstruction at Our Lady of Peace Hospice in St. Paul, where he had been taken the day previously. He was farming until mid-May, Mark Reuter said.

Bill Reuter loved working on his 140-acre organic farm on Big Carnelian Lake in May Township, Mark Reuter said. “He loved the outdoors. He loved being his own boss. He loved the land. He loved livestock.”

A man who worked for Bill Reuter as a teenager in the early 1970s attended the funeral and sought out Mark Reuter after it ended, he said.

“I haven’t seen this guy for years,” he said. “He just said how much he appreciated working on the farm and how much he learned from my dad. He said he learned a lot about what it takes to be a farmer, the work ethic, things like that. He liked my dad’s personality, but he also liked the fact that he understood what farm life was about, and he took that going forward for the rest of his life. That was a cool thing to hear.”

If his father had died even three months earlier, he said, he wouldn’t have gotten to hear that story.