Funerals in Anchorage are being delayed more than a year during COVID

Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. (Photo by Kavitha George/AKPM)

Funerals are just another aspect of life that has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Anchorage, some families are postponing burial services, and others are forgoing them altogether.

Scott Janssen owns several funeral homes around the Anchorage Bowl and the Mat-Su Valley. He pulled up to the Evergreen Chapel in downtown Anchorage in a black Dodge Charger with Iditarod finisher license plates.

“I finished the Iditarod route in 2011 and 2012,” he said. “And then that’s when I started to call myself the ‘Mushing Mortician.’”

Scott Janssen, owner of Janssen Funeral Homes, stands in front of a hearse outside Evergreen Memorial Chapel in downtown Anchorage. (Photo by Kavitha George)

Janssen started work as a funeral director in Alaska in 1985, four years into the AIDS epidemic. At that time, he said there was a lot of uncertainty about contagion and transmission, something that only seems to be amplified now during COVID-19. 

“My feeling was and is right now with this, we’re in this to help families. And sometimes if you have to put yourself in a position of risk to be able to help other people,” he said. “That’s what we signed up for.”

For Janssen and his staff, not a lot has changed with the way they handle bodies. They’re used to wearing protective gear, which is extra important now, since dead people can still exhale contagious respiratory droplets. They wear masks and social distance when they enter people’s houses and follow extra disinfecting protocols in the funeral home. 

But for families, Janssen said things have changed a lot during the pandemic. Normally, he said, clients will wait seven to 10 days between the death of a relative and burial or cremation. But travel restrictions and gathering limitations have made it difficult to hold in-person funerals. A handful chose to skip funerals altogether, but many are waiting months or sometimes more than a year to hold a service.

“We have two individuals that died last winter that … unless things drastically change in the next two months, [we] are going to be keeping in storage until next June.”

A few blocks down at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, cemetery director Rob Jones said there’s usually a rush of burials in May and June — people who died over the winter but couldn’t be buried until their plot in the cemetery thawed. Like Janssen, he said that didn’t happen this year.

“Partly because families were postponing burials and hoping that things would mellow out and they could travel, we didn’t experience that rush that we normally do,” he said.

Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery director Rob Jones walks along the Columbarium Wall in August, 2020. (Photo by Kavitha George/AKPM)

But Jones said burials began to pick up again as the pandemic wore on through the summer and families decided not to wait any longer. Two-hundred people a year are buried in the downtown cemetery; Jones is aware of one so far this year who died of COVID-19.

Both Jones and Janssen said funeral sizes are smaller now. Whereas a graveside service might have had 50 people, Jones said they’ve seen gatherings of just 10. At funeral homes, many families are relying on video calls to include loved ones who are far away or at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. 

Janssen said during this time of uncertainty, more people are looking ahead to get their affairs in order. Pre-arrangements, where clients pay for their funerals before they die, are up this year, he said.

“Everybody right now, all of us are confronted with the fact that we could get sick,” he said. “Everybody I think feels a little bit more mortal, because that could happen to them.”

Janssen said his goal is the same as it was before the pandemic — to keep lending support to families in one of the most difficult moments of their lives.