They first started thinking about what it would be like to work in “the business” after losing both their parents at an early age. For the past eight years, they have worked for a small funeral home that, like many things these days, falls under a much larger corporate umbrella.
“We go now to work every day, but the mortuary is not open to pubic. Not even by appointment. We used to meet with families, contact the next of kin, and find out what kind of services they want and set up arrangements. Where one might select a casket, or cremation, we’d talk about that; but now it’s all done over the phone, and internet, which means it’s less personal. And that’s weird. Because you are so used to that personal touch; understanding, or, trying to understand, what they are going through, and now– you are just a voice. On the phone. Trying to listen. And it’s easy to slip into being an order-taker. I try to always remember that somebody lost their mom or dad. The great thing is I don’t have to dress up so much. Not a coat and tie… I contact them by phone, and more and more of them are victims of this virus.”
More and more.
“We are owned by a big company. And there are other mortuaries in the area that are dealing with it, too. All under the same umbrella. And the number of cases has really multiplied, even in the last week… I mean, there’s all kind of H.I.P.A.A. rules about asking what a person died of, but in this case, we have to know when we send somebody to pick somebody up, especially nursing homes, we have to find out, so we can have the proper PPE. I personally don’t go out and pick people up. There are folks who do that. Usually, we ask if there are any infectious diseases, and people get it right away, and they say either it’s Covid or, I forget the word, Covid probable, maybe this person hasn’t been tested, and I’ve heard of people who test one day and they are fine and the next couple days they are not, so…”
“It’s very very limited. Our services. If it’s cremation, whether it is Covid or not, there usually isn’t a viewing, but there were times when there was a viewing before cremation, for example in the Vietnamese community, but now in the case of Covid, they have to be embalmed first. (Even if they are to be cremated) No viewings. People can be buried, but there have not been a lot of directives, either from the National Funeral Directors Association or C.D.C. – but it seems to be that embalming doesn’t kill the disease completely. So, if family wants to see the body, then we limit viewing to 30 minutes.”
“You almost make it up as you go along, ’cause there is no president or protocol. But right away, The Catholic Church, for example, said ‘no more services in churches, but only services outdoors at Catholic Cemeteries and only up to ten people… and that is kind of what it remained. There is one private cemetery that undermines us, says you can have as many people as you want, which is,um… against county guidelines – and in those cases I end up being… more an observer, rather than a participant.”
“What we have been telling families, and what they end up doing a lot is a cremation right now and a celebration of life service down the line. And a lot are opting for that kind of postponement. We had to make clear right away we can’t store bodies. We don’t have facilities to store a body for three months …”
“Everybody is watching the day-to-day-reopening-we-don’t-know-when-and-all-that… we will probably be going with county guidelines. Something we just started doing and it seems to be really helpful is adding The Facebook Live ceremonies. We did one, a Buddhist service in our chapel, and I’m sure will evolve as things change.”
“We try to maintain social distancing as much as we can, but, you know, people come as families, right? But often they feel like they don’t have to (social distance) but, you know… if they are coming from different households… maybe they should; which is where it is hard. We get the ones that say, ‘I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye ’cause they were in the hospital and didn’t get a chance to see them.’ I try to take everyone as they come and do what I can for them … I tell folks, ‘we can only have ten people at the cemetery,’ and then they say, ‘well, we are going to have forty,’ and I say, ‘wait, what, forty?’ And in the case I try to become, well… more an observer than a participant… If I’m doing two, three funerals a week then I’m exposed to fifty – sixty plus people …”
My friend has the acute and very natural gift of always sounding like they are genuinely smiling with full knowledge of what is.
“That’s the other thing, with any business, even though our numbers are up for the season, the revenue is down, because we are not doing the formal visitation, the night before, and the whole thing. They are not getting the register book, the folders, and the prayer cards, but I’m… Luckily, I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been pressured to sell something folks don’t want. I won’t push anything I don’t believe in – they’re gonna spend what they are going to spend, for a casket, or not.”
“We were trying to make it simple as possible, in the beginning, trying to make it as memorable as we can… Like Facebook Live streaming, that’s helping open it up. Initially, we couldn’t get flowers, ’cause the flower mart was closed downtown and our florist, the florist who we all use, they couldn’t buy wholesale flowers. In the very beginning, we had to say we can’t get flowers right now. And then the loved ones would call around and it would be the same result because no florist was open, so…”
“It’s pretty easy to get priests or ministers to do a graveside service, short private services…”
“When this all started, there was a lot of lack of information; a lot of the people that were going to pick somebody up were not as prepared– even though they had dealt with infectious diseases before, H.I.V. Hepatisis C, or…. We had morning meetings. Every day. Talking about how many cases we had the night before. And we would all kinda report in about that… And there’s a lot of disinformation, families would call, ‘hey, they have covid 19 and I know we can’t do a burial, it has to be cremation…’ And we would say, ‘that’s not true, we can do this…”
“Listen, if you don’t care about people, you shouldn’t be in this field. I came into it very late. I have only been doing it eight years, but one thing I try do, from time to time… I would try to learn something about their loved one. Ask had they been sick a long time, what happened; and people, for the most part, want to talk. So, I try to take that extra time to talk. And normally, we would sit down, and say… let’s make this a memorable thing. How can we remember them and make it special? So now… we take that time finding about them on the phone, so you just don’t end up an order taker, like, ‘do you want fries with that, Want an urn? Cremation? No? Check.’ We’re really not even meeting them. They’ll call up and we’ll meet them in the parking lot and they will hand us the clothing. We take the clothing, if it’s a burial. And then the other times, if it is a cremation, we don’t see them till the time they pick up the death certificates and the urn; otherwise, that is the only time we were encountering them…”
“And there’s been a lot of older folks, even without the virus, who have given up. I’ve had at least one suicide, after it all started. The family was really surprised by it, and you wonder, was he afraid he would get virus? He was older, eighty. The business is seasonal. And a lot of people are surprised by that, but November, December, and January are our busy months. People tend to make it through the first of the year and then they pass away, but right now, we are jammed, and it is April/ May and we are busy, usually, but not super busy, and now… we are super busy… I get, well, tired… ’cause I’m on the computer all day because there is just so much paper work, especially with cremations, and you are generating all of this…”
I ask him how he is doing with all of this.
“I think I’m doing okay. The other day we had six Covid cases in two days… And that is a lot. Usually, we get one case every two-three days – we refer to them as cases, each one represents a loved one, a person, but…”
“So, all of a sudden, we had six. In a two-day period. And I… came home depressed. Luckily, we haven’t lost any kids. And thank God we haven’t had any of that. As a funeral director, you have to get a level of detachment. And there are some families that you really bond with them, and others you want them to go away; and some people, they come in, and it’s like, almost a burden, and you just want to think… it’s like that we are just trying to take out the garbage for them. I had one guy, who was a nephew, and he had to take care of his uncle, who he hadn’t seen in fifteen years. And he was an alcoholic (the uncle) and he was like, ‘what do I have to sign, and what do I have to do… You have to remain a certain level of detachment, or, it will get you. But, then you have a kid, and it affects you, and if it doesn’t affect you, you don’t care, and if you don’t care you are in the wrong business…”
“That’s why I think it’s worked out for me as a career, because it reflects a lot about how I feel. Like when you were going through what you were going through with your mom. I knew, because that’s what I do and also because I lost both my parents when I was young, when I was nineteen, back to back, heart attack, cancer… So, when I see the person who is the same age as I was when my parents passed away, when I see a nineteen-year-old kid like that, I know that feeling.”
We wait for the beeping of the sanitation workers in the alleyway to do their own invisible job before he continues.
“I’ve heard from families, you know, when we talk, on the phone, and they say they weren’t able to go in and, you know, see them. But, some nurse had done a Facetime call, held up the phone, and they tell me how special that was. Those things they were doing. When they got to me, it makes such a difference to the family.”