Robert “Rob” Gill is a licensed funeral director and certified cremationist in Minnesota. He's a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and works for Chilton Funeral Chapel, he has practiced Native customs in four states, and served Lakota, Dakota, and Chippewa families for many years.
The difficulty for Gill in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is that there are no extra transportation costs for any deaths in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, or Minnesota. All of this considered Gill personally to come to the family’s home to make all the funeral arrangements. Today, we spoke with Gill about the difficulties in maintaining safe practices while maintaining the traditions of the families involved.
On today's newscast, Vincent Schilling talked with Gill on how he provides funeral services to many Native families, and how he is coping with providing services for families during this COVID-19 crisis.
Today's Indian Country Today Newscast
Here are a few of the comments from Gill:
"Yes, the funeral home where I work at, we have CDC guidelines. Of course, every client we have, we use universal precautions, gown, gloves, mask ... Of course, you know, masks and gloves and social distancing. Those are key factors."
"Some of the families, they are waiting until the restrictions lift. So in doing so, we've right now, we've begun to move some of those individual family members to grave sites."
"So storage has become a big issue, not just our funeral home, but all funeral homes in general."
On his business: "It has, it has [increased] it is noticeable."
"Our furthest reach would be Pine Ridge Rosebud. That's about an eight hour, one way. Turtle Mountain. The Peace Gardens there, Canada. And of course, we go out east to Menominee, but not so much. We serve Ho-Chunk."
"I know Gallup, New Mexico, I've helped some families from down there help their loved ones get home. They were up here with family, but not all COVID cases - just in the past few years, since I've been a funeral director."
"It's hard when a death occurs because you have to, first of all, do the removal of the decedent, wherever they may be at a morgue. A lot of the tribes have morgues for pathologists, they'll go to like Sioux falls. There's a federal pathologist way down to Ramsey, Minnesota and St. Paul. They take bodies from way over in the different tribes because the tribes aren't states they're their own sovereign nation. So federal takes over."
"So we have to first find out where the deceased is and some families they try to wait for us seven hours, one-way. They try to wait for us in their homes."
"Let's say you have a hospice care person and then they died in their home and they want to wait until we arrived. We always say, 'It's seven hours, will it be fine?' 'Yes.' Not all cases are that way."
"Sometimes within the industry, we have what's called trade call or other funeral homes that may, that they're choosing to help you with doing the removal until you get to their funeral home, or maybe even do a trade call embalming."
"It's devastating to the loved ones when they want to have closure."
"If you do choose embalming, we disinfect the body to where it's safe, but it's the gathering of the people that is dangerous because of the droplets. That's how it travels COVID doesn't have wings or legs. It travels by people being in close quarters to each other, such as a funeral service, waiting service, customs and traditions fall in the same order where there's very limited people there and just immediate, immediate family next of kin."
"Positive, we had about six altogether, three were native that came through our funeral home. Matter of fact, the family, since about April, are finally gonna be having a short service at church and vburial this coming Saturday, I believe."
"They don't test a deceased person to see if they're positive or not. They are doing it now but these first few months, they didn't know if they died of COVID or not."
"We go ahead and protect ourselves and disinfect the body and care for it, for the patient."
"One of the big issues is jurisdiction. All are our Native people, when we go to have a heart surgery or brain surgery, or get that intensive care, we have to go outside the reservation boundaries. And our tribal jurisdiction cannot reach our loved ones."
"Majority of the time we'll die in the hospitals. And so wherever a body is any county in the state of the union, that county where the death occurs has jurisdiction over the deceased."
"This includes like a Native, they want to be buried whole...maybe somebody has an amputee. They have to go to the hospital to get the amputee done. And when that takes place maybe they want that part of them cremated and saved until the time comes, when they can be put back hole and buried someday."
"Do medical staff ask those questions? Who is protecting our Natives in this area?"
"It goes down to like placentas, childbirth...It's a custom to take the placenta and bury it on homelands or reservation lands, but they'll put their jurisdiction and tell the families, 'No, you can't have your loved ones. You got to have a funeral director come and do the removal before and work with them to do your Native customs and traditions.' And that comes back to us. In this field, I know of only three others that are fully licensed morticians."
"I don't know if the others, how well or how much they're upholding their mortuary customs on their tribes but it's important as a human being to express a life that was lived."
"As Native Americans we had customs and traditions that we did from the beginning of time. And we're the only nationality in our own homelands that don't get to express our customs and traditions. Our cemeteries are still all over the country. We weren't, on your reservation here and there...there was none of that. We were free to, wherever we were at, we would take care of our loved ones and mortuary care. We're the only ones that are not allowed to do that. That's a human rights violation all onto itself, actually a big human rights violation."
"I believe that first of all, there should be something written into the penal codes of each jurisdiction, federally recognized jurisdiction. We don't know what our needs are. Some people they're of different religions within the tribe too."
"A lot of Native customs were practiced when there was no death from an automobile accident or the trauma that we see today, overdosing, or the many ways that we do die today."
"We need to change that so we can have proper grieving and proper burials today."
"Mortuary care does fall under health care and I was a medic. I served since 97 until 2017, and it wasn't a very big jump from a medic to mortician."
"I had all the physiologies, anatomies, pathologies, chemistry. I was fortunate enough to go to a one year program where normally it takes a couple of years to four years. It's a degree program."
"I was always interested in healthcare...As a medic I didn't get to save everybody. And, you know, I look around and just because you die doesn't mean you disappear into thin air, you still need care as a human being. And I didn't see nobody around so I thought maybe that I could do that for our Native peoples, help them in the mortuary care."
"It was very eye opening. When I went to mortuary school, we had two pages front and back of how the different customs and traditions of men around the world are listed there. Like the Christian burial order service praying over the body, praying over the people, mass. Two pages. Buddhism. Men of the world but in those two pages, nowhere in there are Native customs and traditions."
Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.
Today, Vincent Schilling sat in for anchor and executive producer of the newscast, Patty Talahongva.