Restoring Dignity in Death

Amid the COVID toll, funeral directors offer new approaches for burial and memorial services

05 May 2020 | 06:21

For many of New York’s beleaguered funeral directors, the greatest challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been transporting contagious bodies or fears of falling ill themselves or even the exhaustion of working 14-hour days, seven days a week. The hardest part has been turning away families in need.

“Worst feeling in the world. Took me a couple of days to get over that,” John D’Arienzo, president of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, told Straus News.

“It’s the saddest thing I've ever encountered in my life as a director, that there are people out there trying to bury or cremate their loved ones and not finding [help],” Amy Cunningham, the owner of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, a boutique firm dedicated to eco-conscious and personalized services reported on April 13.

As the city’s death rate skyrocketed last month, images of a mass grave on Hart Island and U-Haul trucks filled with bodies awaiting burial sent New Yorkers reeling as the city’s funeral infrastructure went into overdrive trying to meet the burgeoning demand.

The work was relentless. As D’Arienzo put it: “We went from being funeral directors to body disposers.”

Prior to the pandemic, D’Arienzo Funeral Home in Brooklyn performed roughly seven funerals a month, but in April the firm averaged closer to seven a day, according to D’Arienzo, who noted that he had lost 20 lbs since March.

In a couple of high-profile cases, the strain led funeral directors to make disastrous decisions (the U-Hauls). Despite those exceptions, “the funeral service, on the whole, has risen to the challenge and, I think, has so far passed the test,” D’Arienzo affirmed.

Online Services

With the city’s COVID-19 death rate slowing, Gov. Cuomo announced in his May 5 press conference that “We are coming down the mountain.” The worst may soon be over for New York funeral directors, who have drawn on their ingenuity, cooperation, and a tireless work ethic to manage the consequences of the pandemic.

On the one hand, public health guidelines and social distancing measures have forced many funerals and memorial services online, while for some families, COVID has meant looking mortality directly in the eye.

During the first week of April, an NYC Deputy Medical Examiner told funeral directors during a telephone meeting that the at-home death rate had reached 10 times the average rate for that time of year, according to a funeral director who was on the call. (OCME did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Straus News.) For family members of the deceased, this meant waiting, often for hours, after EMTs pronounced the death for a funeral home or the medical examiner’s office to collect the body.

Cunningham, whose pre-COVID work largely centered around home burials, began offering approaches for dealing with both circumstances.

For Zoom memorials, Cunningham advised her clients make the effort to set a solemn tone by sending elegant invitations, organizing music (live or recorded) for the call, inviting participants to prepare stories to share or gather items that remind them of the deceased person and enlisting a celebrant to guide the process.

For those who find themselves waiting at home with a friend or loved one who has passed: “Seize the moment and try to make it as meaningful and spiritual as you can,” Cunningham counsels. For some people that might involve FaceTiming relatives and clergy for last goodbyes.

“It's a really stressful moment for people who would not have, in normal times, wanted to have a little vigil like that,” she acknowledged. “But even if you were to decide to close the bedroom door, you could still tell stories, light candles, play music and keep a spiritual atmosphere or a sense of sacredness or specialness to the moment, because this is going to be the last time you will probably be that person. You may find a funeral home that would arrange to let you view, but we are ... so busy and it's getting really, really hard.”

"A Timely Manner"

To that point: “We still have that backlog of previous cases from a week to 10 days ago that we're still looking to alleviate,” D’Arienzo told Straus News on April 27, “But either we've gotten very good at this or it’s just that the numbers are manageable now. I mean, I already have seven [funerals] scheduled for this week.”

Both D’Arienzo and Upper East Side funeral director Henry Gutterman noted that cremations, which are more complicated logistically and require additional paperwork from both the funeral home and the next of kin, have fallen off since the novel coronavirus reached New York.

“When we have a deceased where the family opts for cremation, they're getting dates May 15 to end of May,” Gutterman told Straus News. “A lot of people don't want to wait. The New York state funeral directors association has arranged with upstate mortuary science courses and students to come down and have families down here sign off or go on a wait, and we transport the deceased persons to crematories upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and have them cremated in a timely manner and so the cremains, the ashes, can be sent back to the family in a timely manner.”

Gutterman also commended the funeral directors who flocked to New York after Cuomo signed an emergency reciprocity agreement allowing out-of-state licensees to offer their services.

“The National Funeral Directors Association put out a call on their website and they've gotten the names and addresses of hundreds and hundreds of funeral directors from all over the country who have volunteered to come in here and help out and stay ... They’re volunteering for local funeral homes who are maybe understaffed, may have a couple of people on staff maybe who were out sick, you never know, and it's helped alleviate the personnel problem too,” Gutterman said.

With hopeful signs and public officials committed to staying the course on social distancing measures, funeral directors are looking forward to a time when there will be more space for healing.

“Something we're all percolating on is what the memorial is going to be and how in the urban setting we can remember the dead in a larger and more public way,” said Cunningham.

“Just as we're clapping at 7 o'clock every night, I'm confident that New York will come up with a creative way to memorialize everyone we've lost in a way that is inclusive and lovely.”

“Seize the moment and try to make it as meaningful and spiritual as you can.” Amy Cunningham