When we say essential frontline workers we think of doctors and nurses, delivery workers, and all of the industries and people providing us with the resources we need to stay alive. But as the United States surpasses 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, another industry has been witness to the devastating toll of the pandemic. Funeral homes have always been the last responders, serving families during some of their darkest moments. Now with an increased workload, a lack of resources and space, and ever-changing regulations, funeral directors are having to adapt to the unique needs of the profession, while worrying for their own safety.
“It’s been heartbreaking. I had one scenario where the man died of COVID and we were scheduled to go bury him and then the wife and one of the sons came down with it so they weren’t even able to leave the house. So I loaded the body in the hearse and I swung by their house. I let them come out and at least look through the window and see that the body was in the casket. I went by myself to bury him. And I had a young man that was only 37 that died from COVID and he worked at the Milagro tortilla factory.
“One weekend between Saturday and Sunday we got ten cases of COVID death where I had to actually close my doors for that week and not accept any more cases just to be able to service them and not get overrun. Right now, the non-COVID cases are like the minority, where we’re still sending some people to Mexico and we’re still doing some burials. In a normal month we would do 20 [funeral arrangements] and in May we are up to 65.” —Manny Martinez, Martinez Funeral Home in Little Village
“The African American culture is to hug, kiss, and greet family members at the wake as well as the repast, where we gather for a family dinner. This cannot be done at this time. The number of COVID-positive cases has doubled the number of cases we would generally have at one time. The number of cases has remained steady yet high.
“We are the ‘forgotten’ last responders, while the government focuses on getting PPE to health-care workers in hospitals and we that handle the deceased with the same virus are overlooked. This is a family-owned and -operated facility. We as a family are all on the front line. From the removal from the place of death to directing the service and everything in between, it’s being done by a family member.
“It has always been a challenge to keep work separate from my personal life with the nature of the business, and our services are needed 24 hours a day, including holidays. During this crisis, it is that much harder to have time for yourself with the increase in death and confusion.” —Nicole Noble, who, along with her father Raymond Noble Sr., is a funeral director at Noble Funeral Home in South Shore
“We have limited the hours of wakes, changed the viewing room to only ten seats six feet apart, closed off our lounge and coffee area. We require everyone to use a face mask or face covering, and signs are posted throughout the funeral home to remind the family and guests to continue to practice social distancing.
“Most families that I help are big close-knit families where the decedent might have six or more siblings, three or more children, the spouse, and many more immediate family members. Following the ten-people guidelines has been a true challenge. Since we know that during the funeral arrangements more than two people usually come to help each other make the proper decisions on their loved ones’ funerals, we meet with them in our open lobby area to keep everyone safe and yet still help them in a dignified way.
“On a personal level, I have to keep my feelings and fears at bay. It is very stressful to keep myself safe and take the proper precautions at work. Staying at home does not count for me. I have my own family to care for and keep safe as well. So I’ve had to change how I enter my home after coming from work or doing a funeral so I do not expose my family to anything.” —Yadi Perez, owner and funeral director at Perez Franco Funeral Home in Gage Park
“I would ask you, ‘Well your aunt died and you need to pick ten people from the family.’ I mean, can you do that? When people come to a wake they talk and they reminisce and there are picture boards and videos and memorabilia. The body is displayed for everybody to see and to offer a prayer, or it’s a cremation urn. The mere fact of somebody coming and consoling that person, it means so much, and that’s just been erased and taken away.
“And so my message to people is just to reach out to this family because, depending on their situation, they are very isolated when they have a death due to COVID. If they live together they’re quarantined, they can’t leave the house, somebody else in their family might be sick. Reach out to them, call them, don’t send an e-mail, don’t send a text, pick up the phone and call them and say, ‘What is it that I need to do for you today?’ And whether it’s a meal, sending flowers, cutting their grass, weeding their garden, getting groceries, or something, it could be the simplest things. Or it could just be that that person just needs to pour their heart out to you on the phone, and all you do is listen and it means the world.
“The funeral brings some closure to a family, and when they can’t have that grand send-off that they’ve always wanted for their loved one, it leaves them broken. And we can only do so much as our profession, but we also need their family and friends to step up and to just circle them and to show them that nobody has forgotten, that they’re loved.” —Claudette Zarzycki, a fourth-generation funeral director at Zarzycki Manor Chapels, Ltd. in Archer Heights