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Funeral Workers Adapt So Mourners Can Grieve

COVID-19 has killed nearly 100,000 Americans — and each one of them had people who loved them. They had family and friends who’ll mourn their passing. But, unfortunately, safety measures like social distancing and stay-at-home orders have complicated an already difficult situation. 

Remembrance gatherings — and preparations for them — look much different than what people are used to.

The outbreak has also upended how end-of-life workers — like morticians and funeral directors — do their jobs. Several of these workers are adjusting to the challenges and helping families grieve.

If you ask Caodan Tran to list the heroes of the coronavirus pandemic, she won’t start with doctors or even grocery store cashiers.

“You know people have been talking about ‘Oh! Frontline workers and this [and that].’ And it’s like no one ever mentions mortuary, cemetery, cremation workers,” she said. "But I’m like ‘People die every single day, like, all the time.’ You know? This has to be handled. And they’re the ones doing the things that no one wants to do.”

Caodan Tran used to work in the funeral industry. Now, she's gathering like-minded people to talk about death.
Credit Courtesy / Caodan Tran
Caodan Tran
Caodan Tran used to work in the funeral industry. Now, she's gathering like-minded people to talk about death.

Tran is the founder of a Dallas-based discussion group called Life and Death Forum. Up until April — when she was laid off — Tran also worked in sales for the funeral industry, and it was there that she developed a deep respect for the people she worked alongside.

“It takes a lot to wake up in the middle of the night, go pick up their body, take them back and then embalm them and do all of those things,” explained Tran. “Then you have to meet with the family. So that is truly a service.”

It's a service Glenda Stansbury’s trying to adapt for the times.

“We’re the last ones that get to care for those bodies and care for those families. Whether it’s COVID or not, death is going to happen and we have to be there,” she said.

Stansbury's a funeral director and a celebrant in Oklahoma City. When planning a service, she can spend hours talking to relatives and loved ones, something she said is intimate and often emotionally difficult.

“How do I express comfort to somebody when I can’t hug them? When I can't hold their hand? When I can’t do the kinds of things human beings do?” Stansbury asked.

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced her — and the whole profession — to rethink every aspect of the job.

Starting with the funeral itself. Stansbury’s one of many who’ve started performing funeral services online via video chat.

“Well thank you all for giving me the opportunity to do this. This is so special that we get to gather in a very unique way,” said Stansbury at the start of a funeral service she ordained for an 88-year-old woman in Oklahoma. “We’ll all get through this together. It’s a new experience for everybody.”

Funeral director Jimmy Lucas has started doing these online services too. His family has been in the industry for 160 years and they own five funeral homes across North Texas. Like Stansbury, Lucas is dedicated to helping families find closure after the death of a loved one.

“I think that good grief and the grief process starts with a funeral service. A celebration of life. A service of remembrance,” he said. “And so that’s our mission and our focus. [But] COVID-19 has changed that dramatically.”

Some of the changes were practical and behind-the-scenes. Lucas had employees start wearing personal protective equipment and required office staff to socially distance.

Lucas said if they’re not safe, then they can’t work. And if they can’t work, then no one is around to perform and plan funerals. 

“So we quickly transitioned into e-documents and we went to online arrangements, meaning that we can be on the phone with them, and that’s worked really well for us,” he said.

Still, both Lucas and Stansbury said families want to come in to the funeral home. They want to have in-person discussions about burials and other details.

“That’s been the biggest struggle for funeral directors,” said Stansbury. “We bend over backwards to say ‘yes’ to families. You know, ‘What do you need? What are we going to do? How can we make this happen for you?’ This is our job. And then all of a sudden, we’re having to say ‘no.'"

Work during the pandemic has been a balancing act for funeral workers. They’ve had to balance their health with the health of their clients, along with countless other factors. Just like frontline workers, the folks on the final line are working tirelessly to heal hearts and bring rest to the ones we’ve lost.

Got a tip? Email  Hady Mawajdeh at hmawajdeh@KERA.orgYou can follow Hady on Twitter @hadysauce.

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Hady Mawajdeh has been a reporter, producer, and digital editor at KERA since 2016. He is the creator and the co-host of KERA's first narrative podcast, Gun Play. And prior to his work in engagement, he also reported on arts and culture, social justice, and gun rights for the newsroom.