Stoughton cemetery on March 23, 2020

Stoughton cemetery on Monday, March 23.

Pete Gunderson has been in the funeral businesses for 40 years – in that time, he has seen epidemics such as tuberculosis in the 1960s, HIV in the 1980s, SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, is truly unprecedented.

Throughout the recent crisis, mortuary services remain essential healthcare functions, according to the federal Department of Homeland Security. Although services, like everything else in Dane County, are now limited to 10 people or less, local funeral homes are finding ways to accommodate families whose loved ones have died.

Gunderson, president of Gunderson Funeral Home, and Jessica Pharo of Cress Funeral and Cremation Services, both said it is a difficult time for those who work in mortuary services. Families must turn away loved ones, and choose just 10 people to attend the funeral of their mother, aunt or grandparent.

“It is heartbreaking to tell families to chose nine people,” Pharo said.

Gunderson said the reality of the situation is hard even for his staff, who have been working with the families.

“It can pull at your heart strings,” Gunderson said.

At both Gunderson and Cress, when it is time to plan services, staff are able to meet with families virtually or in small groups.

At Gunderson Funeral Home, most employees are working from home during the crisis.

Gunderson said many families have asked if cemetery services are still possible. They are, but they must still abide by the limitation of 10 people.

Some families are opting to have more than one service, in which funeral directors complete a thorough serialization of the room before the next service starts. Others have a private service now and a public service later.

Both Gunderson and Cress have agreed to provide that second public showing for free.

“We will be here for the family when the mandate is lifted and do whatever we can to be at service,” Pharo said.

This week, Gunderson Funeral Home is launching a “hugs at home” program, in which employees ask people connected to the family to send virtual messages such as an email or a note on the website. Those notes are displayed during the private family service.

“You can help with spiritual healing in that way,” Gunderson said.

At Cress, Pharo said she is seeing intricate messages pour in.

“I’m seeing beautiful tribute posts coming through on our website; well detailed, thought felt, heartfelt and a lot longer type than normally has been posted,” she said.

Contact Mackenzie Krumme at