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Cress Innovates to Serve Grieving Families
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Cress Innovates to Serve Grieving Families

From the Madison Forward, Part 1: Region's business community pushes ahead series
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In a year that has touched everyone’s lives, the staff at Cress Funeral & Cremation Service reacted quickly, adapting to safely provide dignified and compassionate service to families struggling with loss.

Since 1869, the staff at Cress has always focused on service to families. COVID restrictions required a shift in thinking as to what could and could not be done to provide this service.

The staff at Cress innovated by using creative approaches that could become new traditions, for example, arranging outdoor tent services, holding drive-by visitations, purchasing FM transmitters to allow people to remain in their vehicles and attend a service, and video conference and streaming service to allow friends and family to mourn and share memories.

“We had to be creative. We allowed families to come in and say goodbye to loved ones in viewing suites because they couldn’t be at nursing home or hospitals when their loved one passed. We brainstormed and said, ‘Maybe we can’t do it the way we used to, but we can definitely do things differently,’” says Scott Kundinger, director of operations at Cress.

He added, “We had some services where the family couldn’t attend because they lived at a distance, but they joined us via video conference. This is one of the things that I don’t think we will ever change.”

As an example, a classic car buff passed away during the initial stages of the COVID pandemic restrictions, and the professionals at Cress went to work with his family to create a memorable service.

Despite public health restrictions that limited in-person funeral attendance, Cress arranged a remarkable driveby visitation and the family was so happy to be able to say goodbye with family and friends.

“This gentleman had a passion for these old cars. All of his buddies drove their old cars through to say goodbye and honor this man’s life,” says Kundinger, “and his car was on display, too. It was an amazing feeling.”

The health and safety of families and staff was also front and center.

“We bought commercial sanitizing sprayers so we could sanitize our facilities and established a regimen for how we wiped down surfaces and made sure we were following public health guidance,” he says, noting that during the height of the pandemic, funeral attendance was limited to 10 people.

Cress, which has eight locations in Dane County, also put 20-foot-by-40-foot tents outside, allowing families to gather in socially distant ways. Drive-by visitations proved comforting for families and at the first of these visitations, over 50 cars drove through, with mourners stopping to roll down car windows and express condolences to the family.

“The staff at Cress worked hard under trying conditions to help families grieve,” says Jessica Pharo, a managing funeral director at Cress.

“Personally, I was terrified of bringing something home to my family that would place them in danger of getting sick,” says Pharo. “It was a dark place to navigate with too many unknowns. My heart was with all of the families who had elderly loved ones in a nursing home being told that they could not visit. The most difficult thing for me as a funeral director was sitting down with a family who wanted to plan elaborate services and having to tell them that they could only choose 10 people to support them and be present.”

Darlene Kohn, operations administrator at Cress, adds that the staff was tireless in searching for ways to serve families during the pandemic. “The funeral directors knew that these families wanted to mourn with family and friends, so it was up to us to find ways to say yes, but stay within public health guidelines,” she says. The Cress slogan, “We Are Cress,” has family at its core – and that includes the communities it serves.

Recognizing a growing need in the community during the pandemic, Cress reached out with philanthropy – providing support for food banks in Waunakee, Stoughton, Sun Prairie and McFarland, to veterans’ groups, the Middle Outreach Ministry, hospices and other non-profit organizations hit hard by the pandemic.

“Families came first. No one wanted to see a family left behind,”Kundinger says. “We are so proud of our staff at Cress who spent additional time with the families we served because we knew it was the right thing to do.” - Dennis Chaptman

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