'It Truly is a Calling'

A Manhattan funeral director on changing roles and practices

13 May 2020 | 04:47

Tight embraces, hand holding, and intimate gatherings to celebrate a life well lived have always been standard practices in the funeral industry. But in the age of COVID-19, such ceremonial rituals can’t exist in tandem with social distancing protocol.

As the death toll in New York State rose, the governor’s office instructed funeral directors to limit wakes and funeral gatherings to as few immediate family members as possible. All funerals must now be private.

On the front lines of this pandemic is William “Bill” Villanova, a funeral director at Frank E. Campbell — The Funeral Chapel in NYC and President-Elect of the New York State Funeral Directors Association. Villanova talked about how a funeral home operates in the age of COVID-19.

What is the responsibility of funeral homes at a time like this?

There is a finite amount of funeral directors. Our ability to serve our families during a difficult time like this is important. Our safety remains in the forefront because if any of our staff fall victim or succumb to being ill, then we can’t provide those services. It’s so important for us to ensure that we are diligent and vigilant when it comes to staying safe and adhering to the guidelines to ensure that our staff and the people that come into contact with all funeral homes remain safe.

As funeral directors in our communities, we are trusted resources. We have been following the guidelines for the COVID- 19 since the outbreak, but prior to that, it’s important to understand that funeral directors are licensed professionals in New York state. We hold degrees in mortuary science, we adhere to the laws and regulations from the federal, state and local government. We adhere to the regulations while adhering to what the family’s requests and desires are.

How has your role changed as a funeral director since the COVID-19 pandemic began?

The role hasn’t changed much. Our focus with educating the public and educating the media that wants more information, that’s a different role that we’ve taken on. But as far as our ability to be responsive to the needs of the families that call us, to do our very best to understand what a family’s wishes are, and to balance them in the current environment that has some restrictions, as per the executive orders from the governor, that’s what the real change is. Know that there is an opportunity for families to have a more meaningful service in the future when the restrictions are lifted. Just keep in mind that don’t speculate on what can or can’t be done, so have that discussion with the funeral director.

How do you console grieving families now that social distancing has become standard protocol?

Being a funeral director, it truly is a calling and our ability to be there for family during their most difficult time in their life. And not being able to hold someone’s hand or to provide a caring shoulder or a hug during a very emotional time is difficult for us. And it’s difficult for the family.

And then to think about that opportunity where a community, family and relatives come together during this most difficult time and share in this grief and support each other and not being able to do that fully. It’s difficult. It’s absolutely difficult.

How has the funeral as a ceremony changed since the outbreak began?

Streaming, webcasting, and recording of services is something that we’re using more to incorporate families into the service. But keep in mind, long before this virus attacked our nation, as devastating as it is, everyone was still very transient. So the ability to use technology to better incorporate family members who didn’t live locally was a resource, but now it is becoming more prevalent and more of a necessity rather than something that a family uses as an enhancement.

We’ve gotten so far advanced when it comes to providing funeral services where we are focused on celebrating a person’s life and really sharing the essence of their loved one with relatives and the public through music and through audio, video, or maybe just bringing some memorabilia that someone has at home to the funeral home so families can share in that and right now that that has been eliminated. But we’re hoping that in the future when the restrictions are lifted, most families will decide to have a memorial service or a gathering to celebrate their loved ones life — the proper way.

Are you worried about being exposed to the virus and how that might impact your family when you come home from work?

We need to be mindful of what we do and how we act to ensure that our safety remains of the utmost importance. Am I nervous? I guess you would expect that everybody should have a certain sense of nervousness because there are more than just me that depends on my health. My family is worried about me, just like other funeral directors’ families are worried about them. But I’m pretty confident that the funeral directors throughout the state of New York are taking the necessary precautions to ensure their safety and the safety of our client families and our families alike.

This story originally appeared on April 1, 2020, in The New York City Lens, a digital publication produced by students in the City Newsroom class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Printed with permission by Columbia School of Journalism on Medium