Dealing with historic body counts amid a shortage of resources, police and funeral directors across the state are fatigued. Holding the line during the pandemic means asking for help with behavioral and mental health.
By Matt Skoufalos | April 21, 2020
For the past 30 years, George Kelder has managed the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association (NJSFDA), a professional organization with 1,000 funeral directors in its membership.
He’s been a funeral director for 10 years longer than he’s held that job.
And in all that time, Kelder says people in his profession have never endured the emotional strain they’re under right now during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“No one in the funeral service today has ever encountered anything like this,” he said.
“I’ve never heard the anxiety, the emotion, and the fear in their voices over everything they’re encountering like I have the last six weeks.
“They don’t know how they can keep up with the pace they’re dealing with,” Kelder said.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime, and we’ve never had to so drastically alter what we do for our community in terms of visitation and gathering and services.”
On average, 6,100 New Jerseyans die each month, Kelder said. In the last 30 days alone, more than 4,000 deaths were added to that monthly total, for an increase of about 65 percent.
“That’s an astronomical number compared to what we’re accustomed to,” he said. “All of our systems were built to accommodate 6,000 deaths, not 10,000 deaths. You’re taxing the systems.”
Most New Jersey funeral homes are independently operated, and most directors “live among the people that we bury,” Kelder said. A typical home in the state may have anywhere from one to three funeral directors, supported by ancillary staff; frequently retired or off-duty police, fire, and EMS personnel.
But amid fears of contracting the virus (“We’ve experienced two deaths in funeral homes in the last two weeks that are COVID-related,” Kelder said), many funeral homes are experiencing call-outs and no-shows just when they’re being hit the hardest.
“Funeral homes have always worked 24-7,” he said. “That’s what we signed up for. Death doesn’t take a holiday.
“[But] now we’re going more in that 24-7 with less, and we’re feeling it,” Kelder said. “They’re tired, they’re punchy, they’re under tension.”
Like everyone else in the state, funeral directors are running up against the shutdown when they try to source everything from burial garments to personal protective equipment (PPE), which has been commandeered for use by frontline healthcare workers and first responders. Kelder said his organization just bought and shipped $65,000 worth of PPE to its members because they couldn’t source it on their own.
‘Trying to offer decompression and release’
To help ease the pressure on the state’s overburdened mortuary services sector, New Jersey State Police Col. Pat Callahan was tasked with procuring 20 refrigerated trailers, which are capable of hauling 84 decedents apiece, or a total of 1,680 cadavers.
So far, only seven of them have been delivered.
The state also acquired a Central Jersey warehouse where the dead would be stored, and the Air National Guard built racks within it to house them.
By every measure, the volume of deaths is up.
Two weeks ago, New Jersey allocated 500 body bags to the overburdened NJSFDA, the colonel said.
“We think about long-term care in hospitals, but what about the person who dies in Newark in their apartment?” Callahan said.
“They call and the funeral director doesn’t have room. We can drive them to a place where they can store it.”
In laying out the site, Callahan said his overarching goal was to create something “respectful and systematic” that would alleviate the strain on hospitals and funeral homes throughout the state.
“We’re trying to offer them that decompression and release,” the colonel said. “If they say, ‘I’m stuck,’ we will send transportation, troopers and a truck, and we will help decompress your morgues. That’s really just starting to get underway.”
Callahan also hopes the logistical operation can alleviate the physical and emotional stresses of families who can’t reach a loved one who’s passed during the pandemic.
“To think of your loved one in a trailer or a warehouse is not a normal thing,” he said. “[We want] to do it in a respectful way that shows that we care and that we have compassion.”
Counseling ‘absolutely necessary’
It takes hours of intense heat to reduce a body to ashes, and crematoria throughout the state, which are already operating on specially extended hours during the pandemic, still need several off-hours per day to cool, or else risk mechanical malfunctions.
Now those facilities in Central and South Jersey are being asked to accept bodies from the north, where the pandemic has struck hardest and earliest.
Typical wait times of 48 to 72 hours after death are being stretched to two and three weeks, Kelder said.
Funeral homes in North Jersey “have been completely inundated with over-capacity and not really understanding how to deal with the number of cases that are coming in,” he said. They’ve become “de facto holding areas for the dead.
“In the future, there’s definitely going to be some counseling offered to all of our members, because it’s absolutely necessary,” Kelder said.
Even the inability to make normal funeral arrangements during the pandemic presents its own set of challenges, Kelder said. It’s harder for directors to comfort the bereaved digitally than in person, and even more complicated to explain to people that their homes can’t accommodate workarounds to social distancing guidelines.
For the last six weeks, funeral homes have been operating under “a 10-and-under directive,” and families must also take into account the presence of clergy and funeral directors when planning their services.
Rather than adhering to those regulations, however, families are proposing drive-by services, circulating people in shifts, and other “creative alternatives,” he said.
“We’re having extremely difficult conversations with family members,” Kelder said.
“They have to make decisions, with us continuing to remind them of the importance that this can kill people,” said.
“This is a community-spread disease. You don’t want it to be your spouse’s or your father’s funeral that brings people together and they die.”
Funeral directors also recognize that these extra rules can compound the grief that people feel after they already may have been denied the opportunity to visit their loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes. But he reminds them that “there are life-and-death consequences when you don’t follow the guidances that are out there now.
“Death is an emotional rollercoaster for most people,” Kelder said. “We’re just as frustrated as you are, but it’s for everybody’s own good. We don’t want to work around it; we need to work within it.
“We can come out of this much more resilient in the future if we just stay the course. If we break from the course this is going to be longer and more painful and more prolonged.”
To help handle the emotional strain connected with the pandemic, Callahan has championed access to mental health services, including those provided by the state office of Peer Recovery Services and NJ Mental Health Cares.
The colonel is well acquainted with the importance of behavioral health for law enforcement—first responders are three times more likely to commit suicide than to die in the line of duty, he said—and has made it a goal to normalize asking for help.
To help carry the message, he’s advancing the notion of “bouncing forward” instead of “bouncing back” for people who’ve been working the pandemic.
“My wife’s a nurse, my mom’s a nurse,” Callahan said.
“But to serve in that role… nobody ever did a block in nursing school, that you’re going to have to be the conduit for Facetime to say goodbye to their loved ones.
“You are forever changed if you had to do that,” he said. “If you had to do an autopsy of a newborn or arrived at a fatal accident, you are not the same.”
For police, who are used to dealing with “marginalized people; people struggling with addiction, domestic violence, abuse,” Callahan said the ability to rely on de-escalation techniques and lessons learned in counseling improves their job performance as well.
He also urged residents to understand that everyone battling the pandemic, at all levels of government and public service, are in the same boat as those they’re tasked with serving.
“It’s not anything that we take lightly,” Callahan said. “It comes with no joy, other than the notion that we’re saving people’s lives.
“This isn’t to get a trophy and a plaque on the other side of this,” he said. “I think we all have checked our egos at the door.”
Read our ongoing round-up of COVID-19 coverage here.
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