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Compassion for the living and the dead

Clergy, funeral homes, cemeteries carry significant burden during pandemic

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Staff at Ballard-Durand prepare for a memorial service.

Rabbi Adam Baldachin had a handful of dirt in one hand, his iPhone in the other. In a quiet graveyard with only a funeral director and a cemetery worker in sight, Baldachin tossed the dirt on the coffin while broadcasting live for the family of the deceased to see. It was like nothing he’d ever experienced.

Another day, the Shaarei Tikvah of Scarsdale rabbi was presiding over a funeral with family members who were allowed to attend the burial. He could only offer words of solace. There was no embrace, not even a hand on the shoulder to comfort the mourners. Baldachin has had to strengthen his ability to comfort from afar, being more verbally supportive and using technology to his advantage.

“For all clergy, this moment has been really engaging our creativity,” Baldachin said.

Whether those who died were victims of COVID-19 or not doesn’t matter. The strain on the death care industry over the past two months is essentially the equivalent of what hospitals have been dealing with, but no potential for a celebratory ending.

Matthew Fiorillo, president and CEO of Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services in White Plains, said the home is dealing with four times the volume of deaths compared to normal. They cared for in a month what they usually do in a quarter.

“It’s tiring and it’s stressful, but this is what we’re called to do,” Fiorillo said. “This is what we’re here for. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to ride it out and continue bringing families comfort without losing sight of the fact that these people lost their loved one. We’re here for them. We have to be.”

Kevin Boyd, president of Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, has been taxing his two cremation employees and five cremators seven days a week, with extended daily hours to process more than double the usual number of deceased for the last seven weeks. While there is about a one-week wait on interment, cremation requests are several weeks behind.

“We are seeing numbers that we have never seen before,” Boyd said. “I can say that with a high degree of certainty.”

Like many industries, the death care industry has adapted to the restrictions caused by the pandemic, but it is one of the few that has seen remarkably more demand for its services.

“These are extremely challenging times, and those in the funeral industry are just as much first responders as the medical professionals who are fighting this contagion from the front lines,” Westchester County Executive George Latimer said in a statement on April 29. “We have not forgotten the importance of bringing the people who have perished from this terrible disease to their final resting place with the utmost dignity and respect.”

Helping in healing

Above all right now, Baldachin is preaching safety. He isn’t ready to sacrifice more people to coronavirus if he can help it, so as difficult as it is, he and others on the Westchester Board of Rabbis have supported limited access to shared physical spaces during the shelter in place initiative.

“Limiting the number of people exposed to COVID-19 is the priority,” Baldachin said. “This is really in line with Jewish tradition that we always have to think about human life and our health before we do our rituals.”

That’s where the aforementioned challenges come in. Baldachin doesn’t believe he’s fully able to do his job — comforting others — but said that families have been extremely patient and understanding, especially as time goes on and the virtual options available in all aspects of life make for increasingly acceptable substitutes.

In addition to funeral services, sitting shiva and the kaddish have shifted online. With kaddish, 10 people are required to be physically present for the reading, so Baldachin has adapted that to 10 virtual presences. That’s how important the ritual is in the 30 days after the burial.

“I think the more time goes on, the easier it is for families to imagine themselves using the virtual space in order to receive the consolation, the comfort they need,” Baldachin said. “At the beginning it was harder for families to imagine how they would be able to receive that comfort.”

While many mourners feel cheated out of their traditions, they know the alternative is better than nothing.

“They see the benefit of it,” Baldachin said. “But we all feel this is not ideal and we’d rather be able to be together… The only silver lining is that people from around the world have come together for a shiva.”

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Shaarei Tikvah Rabbi Adam Baldachin has presided over funerals over the phone.

The need for these spiritual moments through all religions has been reinforced during the pandemic.

“It’s proven to us and reminded us of the importance of traditions, rituals and sacred texts to help people to navigate difficult times,” Baldachin said. “As a rabbi my responsibility is to help people navigate their own tradition and to learn tools that can help them during difficult and dark times. My ability to interpret text has been strengthened … in order to help people during this difficult moment.”

What happens going forward is anyone’s guess, but with a full release from quarantine rules nowhere in sight and many who will likely go at their own pace for returning to the world we used to live in, the current way of conducting religious rituals — from services to bar mitzvahs to weddings — will perhaps remain well beyond the pandemic.

“We are going to be much more aware now that virtual connection is something we should be living with from now on … Joining the community virtually might be the only way they can feel comfortable,” Baldachin said. “Also in order to grow the size of our community’s attendance at our programs, our memorial services, our funerals, this is another way people can connect … At the same time, it’s still not the same as being [together] in person.”

Funeral planning

On-call funeral directors around the clock. Immediate responses. Two compassionate staff members for every client. Normal ebbs and flows of business.

That was Ballard-Durand until mid-March of this year.

While the compassion element remains stronger than ever and immediate responses from funeral directors — now virtual — are still the norm, there have been many changes Fiorillo has had to oversee.

“It caught everyone by surprise I’m sure, us included,” Fiorillo said. “I’d say around the second week of March there was an uptick in phone calls and concern. We were paying close attention to the guidelines.”

Those guidelines called for a maximum of 50 people in gatherings, which Fiorillo planned for. Then overnight it was down to 10. “We had to downshift immediately and change our whole way of serving people,” Fiorillo said. “We just create healing experiences.”

Ballard-Durand was already ahead of the game when it came to streaming memorial services over a secure server, so that’s been an option all along.

Fiorillo said that while New York State has guidelines for all cemeteries, some cemeteries are even stricter, limiting to three or even no attendees other than someone — a religious leader or a funeral director — to oversee the burial. Fiorillo said he understands the privilege he has to represent families who are not permitted to attend.

As a team, Ballard-Durand staff members decided to allow up to 10 guests in the funeral parlor at once for one hour to visit with each other and pay their final respects. In the case of many recent deaths — caused by COVID-19 or not — the deceased were not surrounded by loved ones due to restrictions at hospitals and nursing homes.

“These people are separated from their families, they’re quarantined, they haven’t seen their loved one,” Fiorillo said. “How can we in our right mind turn around and say there needs to be an immediate cremation or an immediate burial? We said we need to give these people back to their families first.”

The staff, who wear face masks and gloves, have removed most of the chairs from the room, leaving only 10 with plenty of social spacing between them.

Cleaning is done before and after each gathering, and masks and gloves are also required for visitors.

The overall situation has been stressful as the danger to all employees is very real, though no one on staff has gotten sick.

“It gets pretty hectic here,” Fiorillo said. “We all have families, we all have kids and every morning when I go to work it’s frightening. I’m scared I’m going to develop symptoms during the day and not go home at night.”

Early on, Ballard-Durand breezed through its personal protective equipment (PPE) supply — “a pretty big stash” — but Fiorillo, as the sitting president of Preferred Funeral Directors International and someone in touch with colleagues near and far, reached out to a friend in Michigan who “heard the concern and stress” in Fiorillo’s voice, ordered a several thousand dollar supply and had it shipped directly to Ballard-Durand.

“When we couldn’t get [PPE] here in New York, he went ahead and did it for me. I’m grateful for that,” Fiorillo said. “Right when my staff was at the end of our rope the shipment came and it brought us all to tears.”

Initially, a big change at Ballard-Durand was the suspension of biweekly grief groups on premises — they also have one-on-one grief counseling for new clients though those have more recently been done virtually. Ballard-Durand also holds events throughout the year, inviting families who lost a loved one to release a dove in honor of their loved one. This year’s main event is slated for May 16 and will be held online.

“We provide ongoing support,” Fiorillo said. “We’re a source of comfort for the community, not just someone who cares for the dead — we care for the living as well, before, during and after the service.”

The potential challenge Ballard-Durand has not had to face is a lack of caskets or urns. Manufacturers have also been working around the clock to provide the crucial components. “They are functioning at a very high level and I’m grateful for that,” Fiorillo said. “There hasn’t been any interruption whatsoever.”

Fiorillo credits his team for sticking together through it all. “There’s no beginning and no end to our days,” he said. “We’re just helping one another. I’m so proud of my team. We’re friends and we like one another and we really look out for one another. When one of us is getting run down or tired we make sure we pitch in and help out and move on.”

Backlog demonstrates severity

Ferncliff has a long history — 117 years as a cemetery and 88 as a crematorium — and Boyd called the situation “unprecedented,” particularly for the crematory operations side.

In 2019, Ferncliff was, on average, cremating less than a dozen bodies a day six days a week, a grand total of 3,468 last year. Now they are handling 25 a day, seven days a week, up to 150 a week. “That’s the most we can do,” Boyd said.

The two operators normally work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The past seven weeks they’re starting at 6 a.m. and running as late as 11 p.m., seven days a week. One operator works a full day and has off the next, alternating shifts with the other operator. “They haven’t had a break for seven weeks and we won’t have a break for at least another seven weeks,” Boyd said. “Right now [as of May 12] we’re scheduled out until basically June 1 and even a little beyond.”

The first time Ferncliff saw a backlog on cremations was Tuesday, March 24. By noon on that day there were three dozen cremation orders. Boyd did something unheard of: he started scheduling for a day ahead, two days ahead and soon weeks ahead. “We’ve just never seen anything like it before,” he said.

Ferncliff has five cremation machines. Three of them are 40 years old, the other two 30 years old. The three older units are scheduled for replacement by two more efficient models, but not until next year. Since the pandemic picked up, Ferncliff has had only one issue with its equipment — one of the burners overheated and was smoking on April 21.

“Some people have suggested we do 24/7, but we’re not staffed to do 24/7, and more importantly… when you are talking about machines this old you don’t want to have them operating 24/7,” Boyd said. “We are doing everything we can to meet the demand. It’s been a real challenge to try to keep up and the fact of the matter is you can’t keep up.”

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Ferncliff Cemetery president Kevin Boyd

On March 23, Boyd divided his staff in half, with the exception of the cremation specialists, and they alternated weeks on and off with two goals in mind. One, so no one burned out; two, to make sure everyone was staying healthy. “We wanted to build in a firewall,” he said. “As an essential business we had to remain open and fortunately only one maintenance staffer tested positive and we have over 40 employees.”

The main office is still closed to the public and the staff discussed what to do with the gravesites and the mausoleum buildings. After initially deciding to have visitors stay in their cars, Ferncliff pivoted out of respect for the living and the dead, especially as so many people are now dying alone.

“It adds to the sadness of the whole event, so whatever a family wants to do we’ve pretty much permitted them to do,” Boyd said. “As long as our workers can maintain their social distance, the family pretty much has been able to attend in the manner that they want.”

While this pandemic may be a boon for business, Boyd would give anything to have it back to the regular pace. “It’s a terrible thing when you can’t cremate somebody for three or four weeks,” he said. “That’s just the reality of it. Some funeral directors have started driving upstate or into New England or out to Pennsylvania, anywhere they can get a cremation done more quickly. And I understand that.

“This pandemic has overwhelmed both the health care and the death care industries. I think a lot of times the focus, and understandably so and rightfully so, is on the health care side. You’re trying to keep people alive and once somebody dies you tend to turn your attention back to the living, but you have to deal with the number of deceased that the pandemic is creating. I think the focus wasn’t there initially, but I think there’s been a focus on it since.”

Boyd can’t praise his staff enough for the work they’ve done under extremely stressful circumstances. “We’ve managed to do everything that we can,” he said. “They’ve come in early, stayed late, come in on weekends — whatever is necessary. They have really stepped up and done a great job.”

For the clergy, the funeral homes, the cemeteries and the crematoriums, combating COVID-19 is like nothing they’ve ever dealt with. With the added challenge of caring for the living and the dead, their work is not to be overlooked.

And like the work of health care workers, it’s far from over.

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