Death without ritual

Inside a funeral home in the nation’s hardest-hit city, the struggle to deal with surging deaths in the coronavirus pandemic
Nick Cassese puts cremated remains in a hearse outside the Fresh Pond Crematory and Columbarium in Middle Village, N.Y. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post)

ELMHURST, N.Y. — The phone began ringing before the front doors were open.

“Neufeld Funeral Home, how can I help you?” said Joe Neufeld Jr., still in shorts and a T-shirt and operating on little sleep. “Yes. Okay. And what was your father’s name?”

The days were blurring together and now another was underway at the small brick building with the faded maroon awning in the Elmhurst neighborhood of New York City — “The epicenter of the epicenter,” as Joe’s father described their increasingly dire position.

As the nation was hearing about the possibility of 100,000 deaths in the coming months from the coronavirus pandemic, this was the place where those deaths were already mounting. Nowhere in the nation was worse off than New York City, and nowhere in the city was worse off than the part of Queens called Elmhurst, where the hospital was overwhelmed with patients, and the nearest funeral home was learning lessons that will be coming soon to cities and towns across the country as the death phase of the pandemic intensifies.

“We are your future,” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had been saying to the rest of the nation in press briefings day after day, and meanwhile, Joe Jr. was saying into the phone, “Yes, we are going to get him over there to cremation today.”

It was only 9 a.m. and already, Joe Jr., his father Joe Sr., and the two other employees were busier than the whole week before, when they’d handled their first two coronavirus-related deaths with all the dignity expected of a funeral home with 80 years in the business. In the days after that came two more calls, and more after that, and now there were five covid-19 bodies in a backroom waiting to be prepared for burial or cremation, another 10 waiting to be picked up from hospitals, and in a small front office, the phone was ringing again.

Joe Neufeld Sr., center, takes a call as his son Joe Jr., right, and Nick do paperwork at Gerard J. Neufeld Funeral Home in Elmhurst, N.Y. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post)

“Neufeld Funeral Home, how can I help you?” said Joe Jr. It was a colleague from another funeral home. “Thank you — very kind of you. Um, busy. Yeah. And plenty more since.”

He was sitting at a computer, the phone tucked under his chin as he typed names into the city’s online system for death certificates, permits for retrieval, burial and cremation — documents that normally took a few hours to obtain and were now starting to take days.

The first hint of the growing backup had come two days before, when the funeral home had gotten a call about a man who’d died of coronavirus at home. The call had come at 7:30 in the morning and 12 hours later, Joe Jr. was still trying to get the medical examiner’s clearance to retrieve the body and calm the man’s distraught family, who kept calling every hour saying, “He’s still here, please come.”

“This is a disgrace,” Joe Jr. had been saying to himself more and more, and today was only getting worse.

“Neufeld Funeral Home,” said Omar Rodriguez, who usually does embalmings. “Did he die in the hospital or home? The hospital usually gives us 72 hours, but now they’re antsy to get the bodies out.”

He took down the name, and then faced the fact that he had three bodies to embalm and a dwindling inventory of supplies.

“Were they able to send all the chemicals?” Joe Jr. asked him.

“I texted my Dis-Spray guy, and he said he could only get us one case,” said Omar, referring to the disinfectant that was supposed to be used for covid-19 deaths.

The phone rang, and a moment later, the front doorbell rang, and into the lobby came a family arriving for the viewing of a relative who had died of a cause other than covid-19, and the last attempt by Neufeld to conduct a viewing as it always had.

“Did you get the nail polish?” said Omar, looking through a box of makeup. “They wanted it orangish.”

“Joey couldn’t get to the store yesterday,” his father said. “There was a line to get into Walgreens.”

He went into the lobby to greet the family. Joe Jr. began printing the El Niño Divino prayer cards he’d forgotten, then slipped into a room to put on his black suit, white shirt and tie.

It was just after 10 a.m., and along a folding table, fresh intake forms were piling up — cremations on one side, burials on the other, almost all of them covid-19 cases, including two whose families asked to have a viewing, which Joe Sr. had okayed despite his growing unease.

Omar took a bottle of disinfectant and sprayed the chair where Joe Jr. had been sitting and the table where there was a fax machine and a letter coming over it from a company that helped transport and embalm bodies for funeral homes during busy times.

“Effective immediately,” it read. “Please understand that this policy is not something that we are taking lightly. It has come about only with an abundance of caution and someone has to fire the first shot in a war. We are no longer embalming remains unless it is required by law. . . . We will not transport hospital deaths. . . . We currently do not have facilities to hold the number of deaths we are experiencing.”

Nick and Joe Jr. move a casket containing the body of a man who did not die of covid-19 into the funeral home. More precautions must be taken with the bodies of those who die of the disease. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post)

“I knew that was coming,” said Omar, realizing that transporting those bodies would now be solely up to them, and at this moment, there were 10 and counting. The phone rang.

“Neufeld Funeral Home,” said Joe Jr. “Yes, I had called because I wanted to get information for your father? Your uncle, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

The phone rang.

“Hello, Neufeld Funeral Home. Yes, what was the name again?” Joe Jr. said, checking the computer. “I don’t have the death certificates yet. I will have them tomorrow. Tomorrow you can come anytime you want after 10 a.m. Yes, dear. You take care.”

The phone rang.

“Un momento, por favor,” Joe Jr. said, handing the phone to Omar.

“Sí, sí,” said Omar, and when he hung up, he told Joe Jr: “Okay. His body is at Montefiore. He’s covid. He’s going to speak to the family but it’s probably a direct.”

A direct: More and more, this is what the surging death phase was becoming in New York City. The funeral home would retrieve the body from the hospital, bring it to the funeral home, transfer the body to a cremation box, do the necessary paperwork, and drive it directly to the crematorium where families were no longer allowed to hold services. No funeral, no viewing, no visitation. Death without ritual.

The phone rang.

“Yeah,” said Joe Sr. “Oh no.”

It was Nick Cassese, the fourth member of the Neufeld team, who was at a hospital picking up two bodies, and explaining that one of those bodies weighed 400 pounds, and had covid-19, and that because the hospital had run out of the sturdier “disaster pouches” with handles, they had used a flimsier body bag, and because everyone was too busy to help him, the bag had torn when he had tried to move the body.

“Yeah,” Joe continued, shaking his head. The family had requested a viewing, but Joe was starting to see too many problems with that: covid-19, the size, moving the body onto a table. “Okay. I’m going to have to call the family and tell them we can’t do what they want to do.”

He sighed. He rubbed his face. He picked up the phone.

“Yes, it’s Neufeld Funeral Home. Listen, I’m really sorry, but we’re going to have to change things up. We’re not going to be able to have the viewing,” Joe said, and on the other end of the call, there was the sound of wailing. “What? Okay. Okay. I don’t mean to upset you. We can talk about what we can do. Right. Okay. Let me call you back.”

The phone rang. It was Nick again, saying that because everything was so confusing at the hospital, the names had gotten mixed up.

“Oh jeez,” Joe said, shaking his head. “I’m going to have to call the family back. I’ll tell them we’re sorry. I’ll tell them we made a terrible mistake.”

Omar Rodriguez, left, and Nick talk to clients at the funeral home. Deaths related to the coronavirus have brought a surge of calls. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post)

Outside, there was the sound of sirens heading to and from the hospital.

Inside, it was becoming more and more difficult to maintain anything like the usual order.

The phone rang.

“Another one,” Omar said.

The phone rang.

“Not really,” Joe Sr. said. “Everything is closed down. The cemetery is not letting anybody in. No real wakes anymore because everybody’s sick. Not a lot of chances to have a burial or even a cremation ceremony because of the overwhelming volume. Yeah, they’re not letting anyone in. No priests. No deacons. Okay. Yes. You’re welcome.”

The front doorbell rang, and into the foyer came a young man wearing a bandanna over his face, and his mother holding a bottle of Clorox spray in one hand and a plastic bag in the other containing a tuxedo for her brother. He had died of covid-19 three days earlier and she was hoping there could still be a viewing.

“Hi folks, come on in,” Joe said, and meanwhile, Joe Jr. put on a mask and gloves, cleared out the back of his Dodge van and headed over to Elmhurst Hospital.

He drove past empty sidewalks, yellow cabs in driveways and people wearing masks. He turned the corner and passed a sea of ambulances parked at haphazard angles by the emergency room. He turned another corner and passed rows of metal barricades where masked people were lining up for virus testing. He turned again and pulled in through the black wrought iron gates of the hospital’s morgue area and tried to orient himself in the changed landscape.

There had been one white refrigeration truck the day before, and now there were two. He figured out where to park, rolled out his stretcher, went inside the morgue office and then inside one of the refrigerated trucks. Ten minutes passed, then 15, and soon, he was backing out his van with two bodies in doubled-up body bags, and when he got back to the funeral home, Nick had returned too.

“It’s just crazy,” Nick said, shaking his head at what he had seen at the hospital where he had picked up the bodies.

“The hospital’s been tagging them and putting which trailer they’re in,” Joe Jr. said, pain in his voice, describing the hospital where he had been. “And then you got to go in there and just find the one you’re looking for. It’s packed to the gills with bodies. You got to be careful where you step.”

They stood there a moment saying nothing, and then the phone rang, and the front doorbell rang, and now Omar was sitting with a man in a mask and a windbreaker, explaining the documents he had to sign.

“The crematory will probably take some time, probably until next Monday,” he said, writing down a date that was one week away because the crematoriums were getting booked.

It was near 2 p.m.

There were nine bodies downstairs and still more to pick up.

The phone rang.

Nick and Joe Jr. prepare a casket for an increasingly rare viewing. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post)

“This is Joe Sr.” Joe said, and now the doorbell rang again, and a man in jeans and a bicycle helmet came inside and sat in the lobby, waiting alone until Joe Jr. finally saw him and remembered why he was there. The case was a direct, but he had promised the man he could have a moment to see his father-in-law, and now he showed him into Room C.

“Sir, we’re all set for you, I’m sorry for the delay,” he said. “I just exposed the face. You can take your time. Please, make yourself comfortable.”

The man went in and stood six feet away from the body. He said a prayer. He took a photo. He went back into the lobby and asked about the death certificates.

“Yes, sorry — I’ll have them tomorrow,” Joe Jr. said. “We just had a lot going on. I’ll call you when I have the ashes and the certificates.”

He went back into the office, typed in some more names, and tried to get organized.

He checked the system for a death certificate he had been waiting on for three days.

He called a hospital and tried to verify that they had the body of man whose family had called earlier but the hospital said no, they did not have it, and when he called another hospital they said no, and he figured that all the doctors and nurses were so overwhelmed that they were probably delayed in entering names into the computer. He pulled down his mask and called the family.

“Hi, I’m sorry to bother you but the information I was given is that your father passed away at Jamaica Hospital? And not Queens Hospital that’s in Jamaica?” he said, and when he got off the phone, he pulled his mask off altogether.

“These freakin’ things,” he said.

He took a deep breath. Omar came in.

“I’ve got another one,” he said.

Masks and gloves are a constant for Omar in his duties. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post)

It was late afternoon, and they looked at the folding table covered with intake forms, and tried to tally the cases.

“Covid,” Joe Jr. began, looking at a name. “Not covid,” he said, looking at the next one. “Covid, covid, covid, not covid. Maybe covid. This one is covid, this is covid. Covid, covid, covid, covid.”

“I have two covids,” said Nick.

They kept counting.

“I got 18, plus those still in limbo,” said Nick.

“So, that’s 21 possibly?” said Joe Jr.

“Christ have mercy,” said Omar.

Joe Sr. came into the back and looked at the growing list.

“That’s it,” he said, thinking about all the requests for viewings, picturing the funeral home filling with mourners again and again, mourners themselves possibly infected. “I’m stopping the viewings. The danger is too much. I want to help these families, but it’s gotten too much. Just the ones we promised and that’s it.”

From now on, the cases would be directs only — except even that was becoming a problem as the two crematoriums in the area could only perform so many cremations per day. The funeral home had almost no refrigeration capacity to hold bodies, which was not a problem when things were operating normally and the hospital morgue could keep a body until the funeral home was ready for it. But now the morgues were full, the refrigeration trucks were filling, the bodies the funeral home was receiving increasingly had nowhere to go, and Joe Jr. was starting to understand that the handling of death in the coming weeks would necessarily become cruder.

The pandemic has put greater strain on Joe Sr. as funeral director. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post)

“We need to move these bodies,” he said now.

He and Nick cleared out the backs of their two Dodge vans. They wheeled out four cardboard boxes stamped with the words “Handle with Extreme Care” and loaded them into the back. They belted them into place and tucked the documents under the belts, along with $10 tips for the beleaguered crematory workers and now Joe Jr. was driving across the empty streets of Queens.

He turned onto a two-lane road that ran through two cemeteries, and finally reached the Fresh Pond Crematory and Columbarium, a stately yellow brick building from 1884. Normally, he’d be driving a hearse, followed by a procession of family members who would gather at the chapel inside to say their goodbyes.

Instead, he pulled his Dodge around to a door at the back of the building, wheeled out his two boxes and handed some documents to the two workers at the door, who were arguing.

“Just do your job,” one of them was saying.

“This is a crazy rush,” the other said. “This is not normal. You give me four bodies at a time and expect me to sweep out too? There’s only so much I can do.”

“Take care guys,” Joe Jr. said and then headed back to the funeral home, which should have been closed by now, only the phone was still ringing, and Joe Sr. was at his desk, thinking about the lesson he had learned on this day coming soon to everywhere else.

“It’s too many,” he said.

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