We need to prepare for a wave of Funeral Directors suffering from PTSD. I fear this is going to be a major problem, nationwide.
Funeral Directors are no stranger to tragedy and mass casualties. In just recent memory, modern funeral homes have served through the AIDS epidemic, September 11, countless mass shootings, horrific car crashes. They were mostly one-off events that you might bring in a few extra sets of hands for, but for the most part, there was an end in sight.
To call what Funeral Directors in New York are experiencing unprecedented is a massive understatement. In an industry built on service, ritual and dignity, Funeral Directors are finding that in order to serve in this extraordinary time, they need to give up nearly everything they know and hold dear about those things.
Grief shared is grief diminished, and providing the physical, emotional and ritual space for that process to begin is the reason we all became Funeral Directors. And yet, Funeral Directors are being called upon to be the heavy who has to tell family after family that they can not have any services, and are often unwelcome at the cemetery. In an industry where treating the deceased with compassion and dignity is paramount, Funeral Directors find themselves literally climbing over bodies in refrigerated trucks and unrefrigerated storage containers, as they attempt to bring someone’s loved one into their care. They have turned their chapels- the most sacred spaces in their buildings- into makeshift morgues, lining up the bodies to fit as many in that tiny space as possible. In fact, they’ve turned every conceivable, available space into storage when they can. As of Monday, April 13, the earliest you can book a cremation at an area crematory is May 30. Many of them are turning families away, because they are simply beyond capacity. Even when families plead, because they’ve already been turned away by a dozen other funeral homes. Even when they are families they have served before. Even when it’s a family they helped as recently as last week.
The things funeral directors in New York have seen in the last few weeks are unspeakable and unimaginable. Now think about the fact that this has been going on for five weeks. Five weeks they’ve worked 18 hour days, seen unspeakable things, done more than a month’s worth of business every single day. There is no end in sight- this surge in dispositions will take weeks to resolve once deaths return to a normal rate- whenever that is.
And unlike most traumatized people, who can choose whether or not return to the places where they were traumatized, Funeral Directors don’t have that option. They find themselves returning to the same hospitals and nursing homes over and over again. They are in their funeral homes, every day, seven days per week. Many of them live where they work.
New York will not be alone in this. As this virus spreads across the country, funeral directors in other big cities are going to find themselves in similarly horrific and traumatizing circumstances. The funeral industry is one with high churn. The hours suck and the pay’s not as great as people think it is, so the ones who are not in it for the right reasons quickly burn out and change careers. However, it’s also common for people to leave the industry after trauma- it happened after September 11, Sandy Hook and Las Vegas for instance.
Our state associations and other actors need to take steps now to ensure the mental health needs of these first responders are met.