There's a saying in my line of work: "The profession chooses you; you don’t choose the profession." The funeral profession chose me at a very young age; I always wanted to be a funeral director. During my childhood, fire trucks, ambulances and police cars fascinated my friends, but I was drawn to hearses.
My 25-year career has been so rewarding that when I was asked to go to New York to help my overloaded colleagues during the height of the pandemic, I was on a plane the next day.
It’s difficult to describe how busy funeral professionals were in New York and New Jersey in the spring of 2020. Our profession doesn’t revolve around a clock; people need us in the middle of the night, on weekends and holidays.
However, the 12- to 17-hour workdays, in addition to the stress, uncertainty and emotional toll, were especially hard on my colleagues in the epicenter of the virus. I’ll never be able to adequately describe their devotion and commitment to serving families to the best of their ability in an almost unthinkable environment.
During the two weeks I was assisting in New York, I worked alongside other funeral professionals, primarily removing loved ones from hospitals, nursing homes and family homes. Most of them had COVID-19. We were all overwhelmed. During a removal at a nursing home, a nurse fell to her knees and cried, despondent over the number of patients who were dead or dying. I could only hold her and cry with her. We wore the proper PPE everywhere, but almost everywhere we entered was a petri dish of the virus.
This was also a difficult time for families. While most understood, it was very difficult for them to be unable to hold the kind of memorial service they would have liked. At Claude R. Boyd-Spencer Funeral Home on Long Island, the team did the best they could, driving caskets to a beautiful pond in the back, where they said a few prayers before going to the cemetery for burial.
When I was in New York, an uncle who helped raise me passed away of COVID in Boston. We have plans to scatter his ashes at his dairy farm. I won’t have closure until we can do so—and I work in this profession. Final farewells for the people we love are so incredibly important.
When I told my family of my plans to go to New York, they were less than thrilled. I said, “I’m not going to get COVID.” But I did. A few days after I returned to my home in Florida, I tested positive. I had a terrible case and was extremely ill for more than three weeks, but I’m grateful to have now made a full recovery.
More than 120 funeral professionals from my company volunteered to help in New York last spring. They left their homes, regular jobs and families to travel to a virus hot spot because they knew they were needed by brokenhearted families and their co-workers.
That kind of caring and commitment makes me glad I chose my career path at an early age. Funeral professionals are often referred to as last responders. Still, last year and this we have definitely been first responders—on the front lines of the pandemic and ready to help every family who looks to us in the darkest hours of their lives.
If you know someone who works in a funeral home, be sure to thank them for the hard work they've done over this last year. Their job hasn't been easy. In fact, they might tell you it's been the most challenging time in their career—rewarding, yes, but also exhausting beyond measure. I also invite you to share my story with others in your life; stories bring us together, and closeness generates empathy.