Please check on your local funeral directors when the virus hits your area. Because I can tell you that here in New York, it’s been hell.
Many years ago, when I was a new funeral director, one of the continuing education courses I took was about mass casualty incidents and how to respond to them. Usually, that mass casualty was a car accident involving a bus, a massive fire at a multifamily home, school shootings or something of a similarly tragic nature. Horrible for sure, but one-time events that, with some help, can be seen through by most funeral professionals.
The last part of the class we discussed pandemics and epidemics. It was almost an afterthought- end of the day, everyone was a little punchy and ready to get going. Jokes were made. We learned about the importance of keeping extra PPE around, and that local governments can’t stockpile body bags because they expire. They told us the crematories wouldn’t keep up. That houses of worship would be closed. They told us there would be mass graves. And we all laughed as though that was something that could ever happen in modern day America.
But that’s exactly what’s happening. Funeral directors in New York are experiencing something the likes of which we have never seen. People in other areas better prepare.
One funeral director I interviewed said he’s been busy in general since January- there hasn’t been that late-winter lull that tends to happen in this area. Then one day, he showed up to his local hospital to retrieve a decedent, and discovered the morgue completely full. It was the first time in this nearly 30 years in the business in that neighborhood that he had ever seen more than a handful of people in there. That was when he knew something serious was happening.
New York City typically sees 150-200 deaths on any given day. For the last several weeks, the death toll has been three hundred every day. Then four hundred. As of this writing the body count is over 800 souls lost every day. And that only counts people who die at hospitals- people who die at home or in nursing homes are not included in that daily count.
Funeral homes that handled two funerals on a busy day are now doing 15 or more. Some firms have done 40 or 50 in a day. One director described it as doing a year’s worth of business in two weeks. But no matter how many they do, it’s not enough for today, or to make up for the backlog left after yesterday, or the day before. Yet funeral directors are doing everything they can to service the unrelenting wave of families seeking help. Since visitations are now prohibited, many have turned their chapels into makeshift morgues. Their prep rooms, garages, storage areas, every conceivable space that can be used, is. Some are not retrieving bodies from hospitals right away, in order to save that precious room for folks who die at home, and don’t have a morgue to hold them. Some have even closed their doors, beyond the capacity of helping even a single family more.
When the virus first hit New York, there was a fair amount of panic. Without naming names, some cemeteries closed their gates and sent workers home, even though burials had already been scheduled. Although they were eventually compelled to reopen, the damage was already done. This was (and continues to be) compounded by doctors who are too busy to sign the death certificate, delaying the release of countless bodies to funeral homes.
The result was a backlog of several days for burials throughout the metro area, that quickly grew as deaths increased exponentially. No longer do funeral directors schedule a disposition: Instead, the cemetery or crematory tells you when the next available time is, take it or leave it. As of the time of this writing, funeral directors are reporting waiting as long as three weeks for a burial or cremation time, even with crematories essentially operating 24 hours/day. Funeral directors are driving as many as 5-6 hours away just to get a cremation accomplished promptly. Students and faculty from an upstate funeral school have brought tractor trailers full of people upstate in order to help facilitate more rapid cremations. However, with every day the number of dead grows, but the resources available to respond remain essentially the same.
I am hearing of funeral directors working from 6 or 7 am until 3 am or later, resting for a few hours, and then doing it all again. They are sleeping in their cars so they don’t inadvertently carry the germs home to their families, or because they’re too tired to drive home. They are becoming sick themselves.
They are dying.
Adding to the misery is a breakdown in logistics at the hospitals where the most deaths are occurring. Where it once took 20 minutes to retrieve a body, it can now take four or more hours, and it still might not be successful. There aren’t enough staff, and there are so many bodies that finding one can seem like a needle in a haystack. At a time when the need for funeral services has spiked, productivity has plummeted, through no directors’ fault.
It’s important to remember that funeral directors are more than just nice suits who chauffeur the dead from point a to point b. Even though it goes against every fiber of their nature, they’re the people who have to tell 40 families every day that there can’t be a funeral,. They’re the ones who are consoling traumatized family members whose loved ones died alone, and now can not be viewed or memorialized. They have to tell families that despite grandma’s wishes, it’s just not possible to have her shipped back to Italy for burial. They’re the ones who are forced to intervene when a family attempts to follow the hearse to the graveside and cemetery staff say no.
For the first time, they’re making arrangements via Zoom and FaceTime, and being the patient tech support walking the elderly widow through the docusign process, and they’ll do it 10 or more times per day. They stand at the grave with the clergy: In addition to a bottle of holy water, the director has Facebook Live open so the family can view what little ‘service’ there is from their car.
I’ve also heard of some really beautiful stories. One of a husband and wife who died together at home rather than go to a hospital and risk one or both dying separately. One of a mom whose missing locket was found in her clenched fist. Of spouses who died separately but were able to be cremated together. Of a funeral director who drove with the casket to the back door of a nursing home so a father could say goodbye to his son through the glass. Of neighbors in a building working together to help exhausted funeral directors get their friend down several flights of stairs to the waiting vehicle. Of neighbors who have quietly and anonymously ensured that every grieving family is fed every day. Of a hospice nurse who posted her desire to never be put on a ventilator on Facebook to ensure her wishes would be followed if she became ill. And then she went to work anyway, because she believed that strongly in ensuring a good end of life for her patients, despite working in the middle of a hotspot.
Of people who were able to deeply sit in their grief as they were isolated alone- and the profound impact that has had on their grieving process.
I know it’s a word that gets bandied about a lot, but the work that many funeral directors in New York are doing right now is heroic. At a time when they could walk way, they are tirelessly serving the dead and their families with compassion, professionalism and dignity. They are being innovative, creative and nimble in their attempts to find ways to serve. It is astounding to witness.
What funeral directors around the country are about to be called upon to do is unimaginable.
When this is all over for the hospitals and doctors and nurses, it will continue on for the funeral directors and their staff. For months. Or more.
There is no doubt in my mind that many, if not all of them. will find themselves traumatized by what they have seen. Some things may never be spoken about again. Others, like Hart Island, will probably be a vivid and constant reminder for years to come.
I don’t know if this will change the profession, but it will certainly change the people.