State News

Michigan funeral homes chafe at 25-person limit for services

April 13, 2021, 6:06 AM

(Graphic: WOOD-TV)

Theaters, schools, stores, houses of worship and most restaurants and bars can have larger crowds than are allowed at Michigan funerals.

"I can have more people attend the funeral luncheon than the funeral," says Matt Hollebeek, vice president of a Grand Rapids group of three funeral homes, quoted by TV station WOOD.

Visitations and funerals have been capped at 25 people since fall under Covid safety rules, regardless of building size. This often forces mourners to rotate in shifts or to "attend" via livestreaming.

"This was so hard because ... you had to pick and choose who could come to the funeral," Diana Lyon-Schumacher of Traverse City tells WPBN in her hometown. Her 46-year-old daughter, elementary teacher Jennifer Johnson, died last month from cancer. "We have a huge immediate family and just a humungous extended family," the mother adds. The funeral was livestreamed and an outdoor celebration of her life will follow in August. 

By contrast, Ohio and Wisconsin have no funeral size limit, while Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota have higher cutoffs shown above.

In Michigan, some families postpone funerals until they can take place outside or the attendance limit rises.

Sign of the times at Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home in Traverse City. (Photo: WPBN video)

Members of the typically soft-spoken Michigan Funeral Directors Association push back more vocally this spring.

"What we're told is that funerals are categorized with other social gatherings, but what this doesn’t take into account is that for a funeral you have a licensed professional present to ensure that public health measures are being taken," association director Phil Douma tells WPBN, a NBC affiliate.

"It’s time to expand the funeral gathering limit today. Funeral directors are increasingly concerned that we are going to be facing a looming crisis in mental health, in unresolved grief, as a result of this."

Restrictions could be based on building size and capacity, suggests Traverse City funeral director Lindsey Jonkhoff Rogers, a Wayne State mortuary science graduate. "We have several rooms where we could keep people waiting," she tells the local station.

Stay or lose your place, Ann Arbor mourners are advised.

At a Senate Health Policy Committee hearing two weeks ago covered by Grand Rapids station WOOD, the owner of three funeral homes in Lansing and Holt, Sarah Jensen-Vatter, testified:

"Families who have spent their lives revolving traditions and holidays around a matriarch of the family … are now going to have her legacy remembered as fighting over who's going to have that 25th seat in the funeral chapel. ...

"I've watched siblings who’ve leaned on one another and protected one another since childhood decide if they would walk in together to see their mother in a casket, or if they would wait in the parking lot so they could hold their husbands' hand as they go in."

In response to media inquiries, the Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) says it "continues to make decisions that protect public health based on the best available science and data." Its statement adds:

"Michigan has made great progress since the late fall peak, however, community spread of the virus continues across the state, which means that protections such as restrictions on the size of gatherings and consistent masking and social distancing remain necessary."

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