The most devastating outcome of the global COVID-19 pandemic has been the thousands of innocent lives the virus has claimed. Death has been a consistent outcome, from the youngest who have fought diligently from still unknown transitional diseases to the most elderly and vulnerable living in nursing homes. Across the nation, families have sought confidence in those long-term facilities as a safe haven that offered loved ones a secure, residential dwelling to live their final years of life. Instead, nursing homes have become ground zero for COVID-19 death.
On April 30, The Miami Times introduced, “The last responders,” a front-page feature that illuminated the following: “The business of burying the dead six feet deep has been compromised by a mandate that keeps mourners six feet apart. COVID-19 is changing the way America lives and how swiftly we die. The virus now serves as a torch for final breaths passed from hands on the front lines to the care of last responders.”
Three prominent South Florida funeral directors were featured including Gregg L. Mason, Evans St. Fort and N. Patrick Range, Sr. All are men who had embalmed bodies infected with coronavirus and shared their stories of an industry altered by social distancing mandates, the need to don PPE’s for workplace protection and the art of compassionate counseling during a pandemic that has forced funerals to take on the form of virtual memorials.
Now, a woman speaks. Carol Williams is a longtime funeral director in her own Atlanta community and knows what it means to be there for others. She has arranged services for relatives, close friends, fellow church members and sorority sisters. Williams, too, has learned to grapple with her own grief while helping others through the process.
What she faces today amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, introduces a host of new challenges — including all the nursing home deaths. According to News Service Florida, as of Wednesday, May 13, more than 42 percent of 1,827 COVID-19 deaths in Florida stemmed from cases contracted in long-term care facilities. Of the 776 deaths tied to the facilities, 376 of them involved facilities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Twenty five percent of the state’s 67 counties have facilities with at least 11 long-term care deaths.
These statistics are not only startling, they give light to a dilemma faced by funeral industry professionals that continues to grow. What will they do with all of the dead bodies?
Carl M. Williams Funeral Directors, the historic funeral home she co-owns with her husband, has picked up the bodies of five nursing home residents known to have tested positive for the coronavirus. But she suspects many more recent deaths in these facilities are COVID-19 related. Without test results, she says, “you have no way of knowing whether the person had the virus or not."
She worries about funeral industry colleagues who come in contact with still-infected bodies and are struggling to find the protective equipment they need to safely do their jobs. Williams, who for 10 years has been the executive director of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, knows of several members who've died after contracting the virus.
"We're not the first responders,” she says, “but we're the last responders.”
A former public school teacher who taught health, she switched gears and went to mortuary school with her son in 1995, three years after she and her husband bought the funeral home. She went on to teach microbiology and chemistry in the mortuary school. She became a licensed funeral director and embalmer but looks at her job “as a ministry.” She tends to the deceased but finds reward in serving the living, who sometimes have no one else to turn to.
"We end up being counselors,” Williams says, “because we're there to listen."
She hears the anger and guilt coming from family members who left parents or spouses in nursing homes they trusted, and never got a chance to say goodbye. Sometimes, they didn't even know their loved one got sick.
And she hears from fellow funeral directors about families who come back one, two, three times as additional relatives contract the virus and die. One nursing home in Atlanta, in fact, saw two couples fall victim to COVID-19, forcing their children to bury their parents back-to-back. It's a lot to take in and, even with her decades of experience, Williams feels it all.
"Sometimes you have to walk away,” she said, “and sit in your office and cry because you're helpless."
Jessica Ravitz of AARP.org contributed to the compilation of this report