clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2 funeral directors on how the pandemic has upended the business of death

Covid-19 is New York’s largest mass casualty event in more than 100 years. But there are no bodies in the street.

Funeral director Kim Zambito, right, loads a hearse in the parking lot of Sherman’s Flatbush Memorial Chapel in Brooklyn, New York.
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for Vox

Kim Zambito, a 29-year-old funeral director in Brooklyn, is driving, always driving.

On April 18, a week after New York City’s Covid-19 daily death toll peaked at over 800, she did three house removals, put about six bodies in caskets, and moved at least a dozen more around the funeral home to prepare them for burial the next day. After dinner, Zambito retrieved three more bodies from Lutheran Hospital and brought them back to Sherman’s Flatbush Memorial Chapel, a busy Jewish firm where she works.

Amy Cunningham, another Brooklyn funeral director, is struggling to keep up with phone calls. She has her own boutique firm, Fitting Tribute, and is affiliated with Sherman’s and uses the chapels at Green-Wood cemetery, home to one of the city’s very busy crematoriums.

In contrast to the embalming, elaborate caskets, and formal viewings offered at legacy funeral homes, Fitting Tribute emphasizes green burial practices and home rituals. Cunningham gives families the opportunity to prepare the body of their loved one for burial or cremation and to create their own memorial service.

But the risk of spreading Covid-19 further has prevented families — and Cunningham — from being in casual contact with the dead, deeply altering her practice. There is no anointing of the body, no comforting embraces for the grieving. The entire industry is so busy, firms have begun sending families to their competitors. “I’m getting thanked for just staying on the line with people,” Cunningham told me.

Brooklyn funeral director Amy Cunningham.
Kim Zambito in her funeral home’s unused chapel.

Some of the most memorable images of the pandemic are forklifts loading bodies into refrigerator trucks and mass graves on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field near the Bronx, where the poor and unclaimed are buried. But talking to funeral directors like Zambito and Cunningham reveals that the forklifts and the mass graves are not chaos and crisis, but the death industry expertly managing the spike in fatalities with orderly and well-planned contingencies, and creativity. Despite limited resources and New York’s largest mass casualty event in more than 100 years, there are no bodies in the street.

That’s because Zambito, Cunningham, and funeral directors all over the city have been racing to balance the needs of bereaved families with the overwhelmed resources of the funeral industry. Most have put aside competition, budget goals, and the more elaborate practices of their trade to manage as best they can the unprecedented challenges Covid-19 has brought them. “I think the public would feel comforted knowing there are people who care this much to ensure dignity in death remains intact,” says Zambito.

Funeral directors’ care for the dead honors our longstanding social contract. “To treat a dead body as if it were ordinary organic matter,” writes Thomas Laqueur in The Work of the Dead, “is to erase it from culture and the human community.” Particularly in times of crisis, the work of funeral directors is to reassure people that society will remain intact.

Yet the death of more than 18,000 people in New York City and over 25,000 in the state from Covid-19 as of May 5 has also exposed the often-hidden industrialized nature of funeral home work. Forklifts, body bags, and refrigerators are now out in the open, for all to see, the reverence of funeral ceremony displaced by the pragmatism of corpse management. The disillusion reminds us of the conundrum of the dead: The body is both organic matter and sacred to our conceptions of self and society.

“It’s orderly chaos, well-labeled and dated”

“A Brooklyn hospital on Tuesday resumed its use of a forklift to move the dead bodies of coronavirus victims, just hours after the shocking practice was exposed on the front page of The Post,” the New York Post proclaimed on March 31.

“Shocking Photos Show What It Looks like When a Hospital Runs Out of Room for Coronavirus Corpses,” read a headline at Vice News about Sinai Grace Hospital in Detroit. Drone footage of mass graves on Hart Island appeared in multiple newspapers, including the New York Times. The New York Police Department later seized the drone, reinforcing the perception that the graves are disrespectful.

Forklifts and other large equipment have long been a part of the behind-the-curtains work of morticians and funeral directors. Mechanized lifts make the work of moving bodies — into morgue refrigerators, into crematoriums — less laborious and dangerous. The unclaimed and indigent of New York have been buried in mass graves on Hart Island for a hundred years. Body bags are standard issue for hospitals and funeral homes.

Zambito says a slow day is only having four funerals, compared to the “13, 17, 20 or so we have had each day.”
Cunningham runs her boutique green funeral company from Sherman’s.
Zambito organizes caskets with Chris Kasler. She says casket selections have become depleted because of high demand.

Yet the media has fixated on these common tools and procedures to capitalize on people’s fear and romantic notions of death — it’s been generations since American families have handled their own loved ones’ corpses. Our contemporary understanding of death seldom includes decomposition.

“The media is acting like they’ve caught the government in a vile conspiracy,” Caitlin Doughty, a California mortician and bestselling author, recently said in a lively video installment on her YouTube channel, “Ask a Mortician,” “Refrigerated trucks are a good thing. They keep those extra bodies cool, safe, and distant from the population.”

Cunningham explains the equipment comes into play when there are many bodies and little space to keep them. “It’s not a juicy scandal,” she said. “It’s orderly chaos, well labeled and dated.” Bodies have to be stacked in trucks out of necessity.

Maybe, Doughty offers, the public outrage at forklifts is because many don’t understand how industrialized the funeral industry is. Maybe people are (rightly) made uncomfortable when they see how the city’s poor are buried, in plain boxes in mass graves on Hart Island. Or maybe, she suggests, public reaction to these images is caused by death’s emergence from our subconscious; the pandemic has made death a daily fact of conscious life.

Covid-19 is straining funeral homes, crematoriums, and cemeteries

The epidemic has made clear that most of us don’t have a clear understanding of the work done by the people in the death trade. “Along with terror, suffering and death, a plague brings a macabre logistical problem: lots of corpses that need to be disposed of,” Jody Rosen recently wrote at the New York Times.

We enter into the funeral directors’ realm once a loved one takes their last breath. If they unexpectedly die at home — 1,125 New Yorkers died outside a hospital in the first five days of April, per the New York City Fire Department, more than eight times the normal rate — the family will call 911, who will send the police. The police will contact the medical examiner’s office. At the peak of the virus in the city, it took nearly 24 hours for pickups to be arranged, Zambito told me, when it normally takes only a few hours. She’s since noticed a decline in wait times.

Once the NYPD has cleared the body for pickup, the family will try to find a funeral home to prepare the body for burial or cremation. But as the death toll has risen, funeral homes had a harder time meeting the demand for their services. Then, as cemeteries and crematoriums got busier, their services scheduled weeks in advance, funeral homes experienced the challenge of running out of space for incoming bodies. Many became unable to take new cases. On a podcast with Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest University who specializes in human remains and cemetery law, Cunningham said she was getting calls like, “Can you help us? We keep calling funeral homes and no one can help us?”

Usually funeral directors work with the medical examiner to track down the deceased’s doctor, who, in normal times, must sign the death certificate. But for the moment, the need for a doctor’s signature has been suspended in New York City.

Funeral homes are also no longer holding viewings or ceremonies in most of New York City. “That’s the last time they’re going to see that person,” Zambito said of families she met during home removals, “and it’s the saddest thing ever.” When families tell Cunningham that they would typically hold a wake, she reminds them, gently, firmly, that they will never see the body of their loved one again: “Now is your wake.”

Another departure from what most would deem a good death is the hospital deaths. To prevent the spread of coronavirus, city hospitals have ended visitations — which means if the ambulance takes you to the hospital and you do not survive, your family will never see your body again. Your body will perhaps be placed, by hospital staff, in one of the refrigerated trucks in back. The hospital will contact your family and your family will contact a funeral home, like Sherman’s. A funeral director will check eVital, the electronic service run by the medical examiner, to confirm that your paperwork is in order. Then they will go out to pick up your body.

Bodies are often in white body bags, sometimes orange body bags, the two types the city was able to procure, unless hospitals have run out. When the body is brought back to the funeral home, it is organized in a holding area, labeled and kept cool as the wait for a scheduled burial or cremation begins.

When Zambito says she moved bodies, she means she retrieves from storage those that must be placed in cardboard boxes for cremation or in a casket for burial. But finding the bodies slated for removal can take a while; they’re clearly marked, but limited space has required stacking bodies on top of each other. “We wind up having to play Tetris, where we have to move all these other people to get to them,” she said. “It’s pretty awful, I’ll be honest.”

Darryl Davis has been a custodian at Sherman’s for 30 years.
Davis carries this depiction of Jesus with him.

When Zambito says she casketed bodies, she means she placed them in their appropriate containers. For half a century, preparing a casketed body for a viewing has been an art: the facial features set, makeup applied, the body carefully dressed in clothes selected by the family. None of that can be done now when the dead threaten to share their disease. “We have to just put them in the casket and drape clothes over them,” Zambito told me.

As the crematoriums and cemeteries got backed up in late March and early April — the former were scheduling cremations into late May and the latter were performing as many as 60 funerals a day — funeral homes found they were running out of room to store bodies. Funeral home chapels, no longer accessible to visitors because of physical distancing, became makeshift morgues.

Sherman’s installed a refrigerator in its front garden; it was immediately filled with bodies in cardboard boxes waiting for cremation. Briefly, some thought that embalming bodies would help preserve them longer, allowing crematories and cemeteries to catch up with the demand, but the sheer number of bodies became too much for funeral directors to embalm. The bodies came too fast. Within five days, Sherman’s staff began placing them wherever they could, including in the hallways.

Casket selections also became depleted. Zambito told me that Sherman’s usually gets caskets from one company, but high demand now requires them to source them from wherever they can. “We’re getting caskets that were discontinued — close-out caskets,” she said.

There’s been a shortage of hearses, too, so the livery companies are sending limousines or SUVs. Drivers find they may have to wait hours once they reach the cemetery, the line of vehicles ahead of them snaking through the cemetery’s drives.

In the early days of the pandemic, Zambito says the bodies were coming in too fast, so the funeral home had to resort to placing them in the hallways.

Cunningham has been trying to convince families, particularly those without the extra funds for an expected funeral right now, to think of Hart Island as a spiritual place. “We can sanctify the grounds and make it okay to be there,” she told Marsh. “I can only anticipate that it will be made beautiful and visitable, historic.”

When I ask Zambito if she’s afraid of getting sick, she says no, but it’s clear she’s trying not to think about the possibility. When I ask again, “Are you willing to do this job regardless?” she answers, “Absolutely, yeah, yeah.” As with many hospital and nursing home workers, those in the funeral industry see the pandemic as a time to pitch in, not duck out.

“So far, no one’s sick,” Cunningham said of her colleagues, “and I’m amazed that they want to work. ... Some of these guys are at such risk, but they’re totally committed to being a part of this effort.” As the number of deaths climbed, New York’s governor called in funeral directors and ambulances from out of state. In came 150 refrigerated trucks and out went bodies to mass graves on Hart Island.

Despite casket shortages, the long hours, and the grim retrievals, the funeral industry carries on

The industry has not been without its scandals. “We had bodies coming out of our ears,” Andrew T. Cleckley, owner of the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, told the New York Times after police found at least 50 corpses in the back of two trucks outside the funeral home the last week of April. Neighbors had reported a pervasive smell and fluids running out of the trucks. Cleckley’s funeral director license was valid, but the space, which had been the address for five coordinating funeral homes for two years, was registered for “automobile retail,” and “the manufacture of machinery.”

Industry associations were aghast. The New York Funeral Directors Association said Cleckley was not a member. According to Time magazine, city health officials immediately issued guidance to all funeral homes. The Cleckley example highlights the challenges the pandemic has presented as well as the inadequacies of government responses to systemic shortfalls caused by Covid-19. Like recommending that all nurses wear face masks but not providing them, government officials are not doing enough to help overwhelmed social services, like funeral homes and the families who rely on them.

Still, despite the casket shortages, the long hours of waiting, and the grim retrieval, the funeral industry carries on, shuffling bodies and delivering them to their final disposition. For now, the number of deaths is declining. Future outbreaks, the full depletion of personal protective equipment reserves, and the long grieving process the city faces loom ahead. Everyone is tired.

“It’s hard because you end up working with each individual case and it’s so labor-intensive,” Cunningham told me.

If you drive north of the city, west of the Hudson, and cross the Wallkill River, you’ll find a sleepy little cemetery called Rosendale Plains, which has been around since the late 1800s. The proprietor’s name is Floyd Craig; his son Brandon makes pine caskets. This is where Cunningham has been taking bodies. Because of the shortage of hearses, she loads the casket into the back of her Honda Pilot, where she’s got 78 inches behind the front seat. She slides in the casket on top of an Oriental rug and plays music — classical, or a playlist provided by families — appropriate to the task of hauling someone’s remains to their final resting place. “I make it a funeral,” she told me.

Cunningham inspects the casket of Winifred Pardo, 91, who died from complications of Covid-19 on April 17, in Manhattan.
John Minchillo/AP
Beth Pardo and her daughter Zoe Ko watch Winifred’s burial service from Orefield, Pennsylvania.
Matt Rourke/AP
Cunningham collected donated flowers and an embroidered felted wool nameplate from her neighbors for Winifred’s white felted wool casket.
Courtesy of Amy Cunningham

It’s a reverential task, one that Cunningham, and every funeral director I’ve spoken to, takes seriously even as the customary rituals are upended for time and space. One of the benefits of Rosendale Plains is the uncommonly low price: A plot there costs $800, and the opening fee, the rate to dig a grave and close it, is only $800. (For comparison, a single plot in Green-Wood Cemetery can cost $12,000.)

The high national rate of unemployment weighs on her. When the body is laid to rest, Cunningham puts one of Brandon Craig’s empty pine caskets in the back of the Pilot and heads home. It will be an inexpensive alternative to a standard casket for one of her families. “That’s what I’ve decided will be my contribution,” Cunningham told me, referring to the solemn burials in Rosendale Plains, “one body at a time.”

Ann Neumann is author of The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America and a contributing nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn is an independent documentary photographer based in New York City. She is the co-author of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora.


Devastating photos reveal how an extreme heat wave is wrecking Florida’s coral reef


10 of the biggest — and smallest — scientific mysteries


Florida has become a zoo. A literal zoo.

View all stories in Science

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.