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Funeral services in the age of COVID-19: “You have no idea what it’s like”

Jasmine Garsd Apr 3, 2020
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Due to a surge in deaths caused by the Coronavirus, hospitals are using refrigerator trucks as makeshift morgues. Above, medical workers remove a body from a refrigerator truck outside of the Brooklyn Hospital on March 31. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
COVID-19

Funeral services in the age of COVID-19: “You have no idea what it’s like”

Jasmine Garsd Apr 3, 2020
Due to a surge in deaths caused by the Coronavirus, hospitals are using refrigerator trucks as makeshift morgues. Above, medical workers remove a body from a refrigerator truck outside of the Brooklyn Hospital on March 31. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
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Constantine Choharis’ funeral took place today in Massachusetts. His son Peter, in Maryland, couldn’t visit him when he was dying — he couldn’t travel. And Peter won’t be at the funeral either. Neither will his sister, who’s immuno-compromised. “I’m hoping someone will hold up a phone and I’ll be able to do FaceTime or something at the grave,” he said. 

Daniel Kantor, a Unitarian minister in Texas who recently lost his father, wrote about the lack of human contact while his family mourns, quoting C.S. Lewis: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”

Kantor has not yet been able to have a funeral for his father. He says the grief of personal loss is compounded by the grief of everything we’ve lost in the world around us: our office mates, our routine, our face-to-face contact with friends.

Hugs. Crying in someone’s arms. Having loved ones all in the same place. The things that can make funerals cathartic aren’t possible when large gatherings are banned and we have to stay six feet apart.

Some funeral homes and places of worship have been adapting. Some are live-streaming services.

“Some cemeteries allow you to go to the grave and stand there, 10 feet away from the grave,” said Keith Taylor, who owns a funeral home in Nyack, New York. “Then you have other cemeteries that say the family can’t get out of the cars.”

Funeral homes say they are at capacity. Mark Flower, a director of the Flower Funeral Home in Yonkers, New York, said he’s working 20-hour days.

“You have no idea what it’s like. We’re just inundated with calls. I’ve had to turn families down,” he said. “I can’t keep up with the amount of people passing away from it. It’s started to get to me, to be quite honest with you. When you keep going to the same nursing home … I never seen anything like this in my life.”

Flower said that just like hospitals, funeral homes are struggling to get equipment to protect workers. “I can’t get masks,” he said. “I can’t get personal protection equipment.”

Constantine Choharis. (Courtesy Peter Choharis)

Peter Choharis said he feels lucky his father will get a funeral at all, even if he doesn’t get to attend. His gift to his dad will be maintaining social distancing.  

“At the end of the day. Love is … it’s about giving. You’re giving by not being there. You’re giving by not putting others in danger. You know, that’s where we are right now. That’s the best we can do.”

Choharis said his dad was in the Navy, treating the wounded in World War II.

He would have understood.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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