With the death toll from the coronavirus growing each day, funeral directors and their employees are scrambling to confront the grim aftermath, as the pandemic reshaping how we live has also transformed what happens after we die.
Afraid of contracting and spreading the virus, funeral homes are replacing face-to-face conversations with phone calls, handing urns containing cremated remains from gloved hands to gloved hands through the windows of parked cars and dousing death certificates left on funeral home driveways with disinfectant.
They are meeting the challenge with a combination of anxiety and resolve. Funeral directors describe operating with fewer employees, avoiding older relatives and donning protective equipment, rather than the traditional suits and ties, when they retrieve bodies from homes and nursing facilities.
“Any of our staff over 60, we pretty much told them to take some time off,” said Dan Duggan, a co-owner of Sullivan’s and Duggan’s Serra Funeral Services, a San Francisco firm that has so far handled 11 known coronavirus deaths. Normally, between 300 and 500 people walk through the doors each day; now, he said, 95 percent are doing arrangements by phone or email.
The virus is pushing some funeral homes over capacity. The waits for some crematoriums in hard-hit states such as New York and New Jersey now measure in weeks, not days, and funeral directors nationwide have ordered more freezer storage to accommodate additional bodies.
“It’s really horrendous,” said Richard J. Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. “As far as magnitude goes, this — never seen anything like this, never.”
The fear is one that, for some longtime funeral directors, harks back to an earlier epidemic.
“When AIDS first came out, it was the same thing. It was huge — everyone was terrified of everything,” said Scott McAulay, the owner of Scott McAulay Family New Options Funeral Services in Fullerton, Calif.
Duggan remembers the embalmers union in San Francisco pushing for a contract provision that would allow them to refuse to embalm bodies known to have been infected with HIV, which causes AIDS like the coronavirus causes covid-19.
“Now that we know more about AIDS and HIV, the fear is not there anymore,” Duggan added. “But we don’t quite know enough about the coronavirus yet.”
Many funeral directors now act as though all bodies could be infected.
“From white gloves to latex gloves,” said Major Clora Jr., president and founder of Clora Funeral Home, which has three locations in the Detroit area and has handled dozens of confirmed and suspected coronavirus cases.
Some staffers, recognizing they might be exposed in the course of their work, have started sleeping in their basements while their spouses sleep upstairs, Clora said.
“It’s just presumed right now,” said Patrick Schoen, managing partner of Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Directors, a New Orleans funeral home founded in 1874 in response to a local outbreak of yellow fever.
“Either [the bodies] weren’t tested, or the test hasn’t come back yet. And the family doesn’t know, and we don’t know either,” Schoen said. “So we just treat everyone like it’s covid.”
He added: “It’s very, very stressful for all of our employees to be working right now.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that funeral homes can continue to embalm bodies, but it has advised morticians to wear protective gear, a commodity that some are struggling to obtain.
Keila Crucet, the funeral director in charge at Serenity Funeral Home in North Lauderdale, Fla., said her facility’s orders of protective equipment have been canceled.
“We’re not doctors and nurses. . . . We’re not front lines,” Crucet said. “But we’re also working on these cases.”
Duggan said he acted quickly to obtain protective gear after the virus reached the United States. The desks and doorways at his Bay Area facilities are now furnished with industrial hand sanitizer dispensers. Staffers wear masks at all times. And bodies are double-bagged at hospitals.
Despite the precautions, Duggan decided that any bodies destined for embalming must be left in their bags for at least a few days.
“That’s just an internal decision we made here, just hoping the virus starts to be less vibrant after three to four days,” he said.
In New York and New Jersey, the stress of exposure has been compounded by a crisis of space.
“Every funeral home that I know of in New York City is operating at peak capacity,” said John O. D’Arienzo, who runs a funeral home in Brooklyn and is president of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, a trade group in the New York metro area.
Authorities in New York have dispatched dozens of refrigerator trucks to store bodies and said they still have enough space in the five boroughs for these remains. If they run out of space elsewhere, officials said, they have a contingency plan to “temporarily” bury some victims on Hart Island, which has operated as New York City’s public cemetery and has long been used to bury people whose families and estates could not pay for their interment. Unclaimed bodies of AIDS patients were buried in a remote area of the island in the 1980s.
On Thursday, with New York state recording 799 deaths — its highest single-day total — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said officials would bring in additional funeral home directors to handle the workload.
Moylan, in Brooklyn, said use of his crematory is “up 100 percent.” People who may have had to wait at most a day in the past are now being told it will take more than two weeks to cremate a body.
His facility has five cremation chambers, but one is not working, and Moylan said he can’t get anyone to repair it.
Mike Forshay, the manager and president of Browning-Forshay Funeral Home in Hawthorne, N.J., said he called six crematories last week before finding one that could quickly cremate a body. It was 40 minutes away, he said.
There are also bureaucratic delays.
Overburdened hospitals and reduced staffs at health departments have slowed the processing of death certificates and burial paperwork in some places, and concerns about transmission of the virus have made it more difficult to obtain signatures.
The delays have meant that certain religious practices — such as stipulations in Judaism and Islam for a prompt burial — must now sometimes be forgone. Families that under normal circumstances would have preferred to hold large, multiday funerals or to send the body of a loved one back to their native country are also being forced to amend those plans.
“The normal time frame would be seven to 14 days to get the paperwork to be able to ship a body overseas,” McAulay said. “Now it’s taking 10 days on top of that.
“We had one family that was going to go to Guatemala,” he said. But the Guatemalan consulate, like others, was functioning at minimum capacity, and the delay took too long. Ultimately, “they decided not to,” McAulay said.
Louisiana last week amended its requirements for the certification of deaths and burials, allowing processes to move online, rather than requiring in-person signatures and hard copies, which funeral directors say has significantly eased the stress of disinfection.
“That was a big deal because we were all panicking,” Schoen said in New Orleans. “We’d have families drive up and just put the paperwork on the ground, and we’d have to go out there and spray it with Lysol before bringing it into the building.”
In many places, local and state leaders’ edicts limit the size of public gatherings, including funerals. Live-streamed ceremonies — or memorials delayed until an as-yet-undetermined date — have taken the place of intimate gatherings, eulogies delivered to packed church pews, and condolences delivered with hugs and food.
“It’s the families who are really bearing the brunt of this,” said Steve Barton of Barton Family Funeral Service, which has a location in Kirkland, Wash., the site of the first confirmed coronavirus deaths in the United States.
It has made a deeply personal business feel impersonal.
“One of the saddest experiences I had was just the other day, where the family chose just to come view the person,” Schoen said. “It was just two people, so they took their cellphone and put it on FaceTime. And they put it on the deceased, and you could hear their loved one, over speakerphone, telling the deceased goodbye.”
Moylan described a similar scene that he witnessed last week at his cemetery in Brooklyn. Mourners had parked their cars on the edge of a gravesite, and several stood at a distance and watched while someone uttered prayers. Moylan’s staff, in protective gear, waited to lower the casket into the earth.
“Then they all got back in their cars, drove away,” he said. “And I realized there were a lot more cars, but people didn’t get out. They stayed in their cars. They just drove by the graveside, the casket,” he said. “It was the saddest thing.”
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.