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Funeral directors in Escanaba talk about COVID in western U.P.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Chris Anderson and Christina Anderson are father and daughter.  Along with Keith Anderson (brother of Chris), they operate Anderson Funeral Home in Escanaba and Gladstone, Michigan.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit western counties in the Upper Peninsula hard this fall. The population of Delta County is about 36,000. There have been more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19 and 60 deaths.

Chris Anderson is with the Anderson Funeral Home in Escanaba’s downtown. He says the pandemic caught them by surprise. They did not see the surge of cases in the first wave of the infection in the spring.

“I think- I think what happened is once summer came and the tourism started and the weather got nice, I think a lot of people just put their guard down and once the guard went down, it just seemed to run wild,” he said.

Chris Anderson runs the funeral home with his brother and his daughter, Christina Anderson. They share what these last couple months have been like for them.

Chris: I believe what happened in Delta County is somehow the virus got into the nursing homes and spread very quickly. The people in those nursing homes are very vulnerable. So, once it got in the nursing homes, that really caused a lot of a lot of deaths.

Christina: It's different for the families because they haven't been able to see their loved one usually in months because they were locked down in their nursing home since February or March and they weren't able to see them then. And then they get COVID. So they can't go and visit at that point and then they pass away. So there was this whole time where they weren't even able to say goodbye. They missed the whole grieving process before the death occurred.

Chris: We went from our normal case volume and in some instances it doubled and tripled. And with that, we're a staff of three: myself, my brother, and my daughter. And when you get that type of influx, we were working around the clock basically because we do everything from answering the phones, the removals and embalmings of visitations, the funerals, the burials, the arrangements. And it really ran us ragged. And it did take an effect on us.

Christina: Our requirements here - and it's statewide - is that we ask everyone to wear a mask, especially during a public visitation, to not only protect yourself, but others.

Chris: There's such a wide variety of how people think about COVID. We'd have one family come in and wanted, you know, everyone's on separate ends of the room and mask up and social distancing. And the next family would come in and basically didn't care for anyone, wore a mask and were really not afraid of the virus at all. And these were people that just lost someone with COVID. So there was a big, wide spectrum of how people dealt with this virus.

Chris: We were fairly blessed in the U.P. here, because when the pandemic broke out in Michigan, it really broke down in the Detroit area. And that was in February, March. So, between that time, with our Michigan Funeral Directors Association, they really kept us on top of certain precautions and the PPE equipment that we could get and how they handled things.

Christina: At first we didn't get the first wave up here, and I'm sure it's because we're so rural. But the second wave really did hit us hard. And I think we've really realized what Detroit went through at first and, you know, southeast Michigan.

Chris: It's very humbling to watch what what happened. It was- I just never thought in my career that I would see something like this. But once once it came, we just had to roll up our sleeves and get in there and take care of the families the best we could. And it was really a humbling experience for all of us. And I really do hope a lot more is behind us and ahead of us.

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Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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