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A 'nightmare' year for Madison funeral home trying to help families grieve during pandemic

A 'nightmare' year for Madison funeral home trying to help families grieve during pandemic

From the 6 lives disrupted: How COVID-19 changed Madison series
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CovidProfiles Roman Ryan

"It's just been a really trying year, taking care of your safety and helping grieving families who can’t grieve properly," said Roman Ryan of Ryan Funeral Home.

Roman Ryan is used to dealing with death. Since 1938, his family has run Ryan Funeral Home, which has six locations across Dane County.

But nothing prepared him for the past year.

“It’s been … a nightmare,” the funeral home director said. “Horrible. Absolutely horrible.”

In the beginning, it wasn’t too bad, Ryan said. There were few COVID-19 deaths in the area. Then cases began to surge late last fall.

“All of a sudden we had COVID, COVID, COVID everywhere,” he said. “This went on for about seven weeks.”

Miraculously, no staff have been infected with COVID-19 despite several instances of exposure, Ryan said. He recalled one funeral where more than 20 of the 38 attendees at the funeral home tested positive within a week of the service.

Until recently, public health restrictions capped the number of people attending a service to 10 individuals.

With minimal services, Ryan’s revenue took a hit, though a Paycheck Protection Program loan helped buoy the business. He was able to keep all of his staff on board.

Ryan Funeral Home adjusted to the restrictions. He and his staff met grieving families over the phone. Over Zoom. Even in person if that’s what was preferred. In the summer, they set up a tent in the parking lot and offered drive-through visitations.

The saddest services have been those attended by just two or three people when a death in normal times would have brought out a hundred.

For a while, Ryan kept track of the people seeking to delay their family member’s funeral until a larger, traditional service could be offered. The list was long last spring and into the summer.

But more recently, people have decided not to continue waiting. They’re instead planning celebrations of life to be held this summer or opting for cremation.

“Usually a funeral is a major step in understanding that a life was lived and the person is now gone,” Ryan said. “If families don’t get that, it’s just really hard.”


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