What would have happened if the nurses and doctors stayed home, or the paramedics, the hospital employees?” asks George Camp, owner of Dorsey Funeral Home in Ossining. “Those people did their jobs, to serve people in a time of need, and that’s what we did, too.”
Camp is part of a group of men and women known as “last responders,” the individuals employed by the nation’s funeral industry. While most people prefer not to think about this business of death, the recent pandemic brought an awareness of the critical services this industry provides.
In hard-hit Westchester County, funeral homes met the myriad challenges posed by COVID-19, which included fear of contagion, lack of PPE, unclear directives from the Centers for Disease Control, and just too many bodies (as of press time, more than 1,500 Westchester residents had died from the coronavirus, according to the New York State Department of Health). As the situation evolved past crisis mode, funeral homes have been forced to adapt to a new normal, finding ways to serve the community while staying, and keeping others, safe.
“When the deaths were at the highest, we were extremely busy,” says Matthew Fiorillo, owner of Ballard-Durand Funeral Homes in White Plains and Elmsford, who was handling up to six (modified) funerals a day. “It was quite challenging,” he says, “but I have a fantastic team of funeral directors who are really committed, and they just put on their game faces and came to work.”
“There was so much we didn’t know about the disease; it had everyone jittery. We made sure to cover the face of the deceased to contain any air that might be expelled from the body when we were moving it.”
—George Camp, Owner, Dorsey Funeral Home, Inc.
Jennifer Graziano, of Coxe & Graziano Funeral Home in Mamaroneck and Greenwich, as well as Mamaroneck’s Zion Memorial Chapel, estimates that during the height of the pandemic, from mid-March into April, her funeral homes were dealing with more than three times the normal number of deaths per month. “You have a job to do, and you do it no matter what,” Graziano says. “Snow never stops us; hurricanes never stop us. This is what we were called to do.”
Funeral home staff must be on-call around the clock to retrieve bodies wherever there is a death. This task brings them to hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and private homes, and became much more complicated after the coronavirus broke in our area. According to Fiorillo, however, the deceased were not his main concern in terms of contagion.
“While we took extreme precautions with the deceased, we had to be just as careful around the living,” he explains. “We had to be aware that the caretakers of COVID patients might be infected.” Adds Camp: “There is probably more exposure with a person breathing, but there was so much we didn’t know about the disease; it had everyone jittery. We made sure to cover the face of the deceased to contain any air that might be expelled from the body when we were moving it.”
Once bodies arrive at the funeral home, standard procedure is followed, with added protections as advised by the CDC, although the agency’s guidelines state that the research on the contagion potential of deceased COVID patients is still pending. Careful embalming is thought to decrease that potential, CDC documents state.
“People might have thought, This must be a profitable thing; you must be doing great. I say, there’s nothing great about this. I don’t want to make money this way.”
—Jennifer Graziano, Coxe & Graziano Funeral Home
“Embalming a COVID-positive deceased protects the public that comes into the building, and we ask them not to touch the deceased, but we can’t stop them,” Fiorillo adds. His funeral home team made a group decision to allow close family members to have a moment with the deceased, an option within state guidelines but not universally offered during the pandemic. “What they are going through is extremely painful, we said we are going to put ourselves in harm’s way for the moment, and we are going to give people their family members back and offer them a meaningful goodbye,” Fiorillo says. He adds that state regulations limited gatherings to 10 people and fewer, and that in many instances, families chose not to come to the funeral home at all, particularly those with individuals who were self-quarantining or more vulnerable to the disease.
After whatever passed for a funeral, there remained the difficulty of arranging a prompt burial or cremation. Fiorillo says cemeteries and crematoriums were telling families that they had to wait weeks for service. Camp said he made the long drive to Kingston, NY, during the crisis’s peak, to access more expedient cremations (with families’ permissions). Cemeteries also put strict restrictions on gatherings, often prohibiting mourners from leaving their cars, which further truncated any form of ceremony.
It’s this inability to properly mourn the deceased that seems to be most funeral directors’ primary concern. They will talk about the logistical nightmares of plying their trade during the pandemic and share their initial fears of becoming infected with the coronavirus, but they seem to do so almost reluctantly. The impersonal tone that, by necessity, permeated their businesses troubled them more.
“My first instinct is to physically reach out to [the bereft], but that was totally taken away,” says Graziano. “Everybody became faceless; we all hid behind masks, and it masked our emotions, everything was contactless, the absence of traditional services, the absence of being able to hug somebody… the psychological impact was terrible. This was not what we signed up to do; we are not a factory. I hated my job over the past couple of months, because I don’t want to do it this way.”
Fiorillo says he made a point to do funeral arrangements virtually, via on-screen connections, to make sure the people could see his face. This way, “we show them the services and merchandise they are getting, and it’s still personal, not just transactional,” he explains. “They can see me; I’m in a suit. I can still express empathy, but through a computer screen, letting them now we are here and caring for their loved ones.” Like many funeral homes, he also offered live streaming of services. Sometimes, Fiorillo says, the virtual ceremony was just him, alone in the funeral home, reading statements and tributes provided by the bereaved.
“When the deaths were at the highest, we were extremely busy. It was quite challenging, but I have a fantastic team of funeral directors who are really committed, and they just put on their game faces and came to work.”
—Matthew Fiorillo, Owner, Ballard-Durand Funeral Homes
Despite all efforts to insert a level of humanity, the lack of traditional funerals with public wakes, tributes, togetherness, and religious services has undoubtedly affected the grieving process, Fiorillo adds, predicting that “the path to healing is going to be a lot more difficult than it has been.” Graziano says that once restrictions ease, her funeral homes will be offering belated memorial services to those who lost family members during the coronavirus lockdown (including non-COVID deaths), to provide an opportunity for more comforting closure.
As for the increased business created by this public health emergency, Graziano is quick to point out that, overall, the crisis was no boon. “People might have thought, This must be a profitable thing; you must be doing great. I say, there’s nothing great about this. I don’t want to make money this way,” she states. While stories of price gouging were rampant, Graziano says she actually lowered prices for some people who were really in a bind, many of whom were “coming up from New York City because they couldn’t find a funeral home.”
Overall, Graziano points out, there was no real financial gain. “The pandemic may have increased your volume, but you lost your margins — you weren’t able to provide half the services that you normally would,” she says. “Maybe there were others who looked at this as an opportunity, but to be honest, I couldn’t wait for the phone to stop ringing.”
Gale Ritterhoff is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and 914INC.