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In the hardest-hit coronavirus hotspots across the country, funeral homes and morgues are being worked to their breaking point in an attempt to keep up with the deadly pathogen.

"It has gone from 'it can never happen here' to 'oh my God, I can't believe it's happening here,'" Michael Stack, funeral home assistant at Branchburg Funeral Home in N.J., told Fox News. "Aside from the risk we are all taking in regards to contracting the virus, we fear for the safety and health of our families, as well."


More than 14,500 people have already died across the country. The situation in New York, the current epicenter of the outbreak, is especially grim. As of Thursday, coronavirus had claimed the lives of more than 6,270 individuals statewide – more than 43 percent of the national burden.

National Guard teams are currently removing upwards of 150 bodies from across New York City every day – six times the average number.


In an effort to grapple with the ascending body count, hospitals have had to call on refrigerated trucks to store the dead. Earlier this week, New York City Councilman Mark Levine, who is chair of New York City Council Health Committee, tweeted that the city's parks would potentially be used for "dignified, orderly" burials, but the notion was later squashed by a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said that officials were only "exploring using Hart Island for temporary burials if the need grows."

Employees deliver a body at Daniel J. Schaefer Funeral Home, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The company is equipped to handle 40-60 cases at a time. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, it was taking care of 185 Thursday morning.  (AP)

Across the water in neighboring New Jersey, the second most infected state in the country, more than 1,500 people have succumbed to coronavirus in recent weeks. According to Stack, the first question they now must ask with every phone call they receive, is: How did he or she pass? And they prepare to hear the wincing words, "coronavirus."

"This leads to a barrage of other questions, both in our office and of the loved ones," he continued. "These are questions regarding how long were they sick, their exposure to loved ones, did loved ones self-quarantine? Being compassionate and with the family's' feelings in mind, we have to take them at their word."

For these funeral workers, on top of dealing with an overwhelming workload, tapped out resources and staff shortages in an already aging profession, they are also concerned for their own safety. Some are choosing not to embalm the bodies of those who have died from coronavirus, as per recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, has stopped short of explicitly urging funeral homes to cease embalming. But it has cautioned that "direct contact" with those who have succumbed be avoided. And the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE) remains a point of concern.

"PPE is in a very critical state.  As the media has been reporting on hospitals and their shortages, we are in dire need of supplies," noted Gene Allen, president of the Texas Funeral Association (TDFA). "If or when this becomes a far greater crisis, and if or when the experts' forecasts become a reality on the death numbers, we are going to be in a far more critical state for supplies than we already are."

'. . . we are going to be in a far more critical state for supplies than we already are.'

— Gene Allen, president of the Texas Funeral Association (TDFA)

Most facilities have a month's supply on tap, but given much of the needed N-95 masks and surgical gloves are sourced from outside the country, it is unclear if supply will meet the demand as stockpiles diminish. Nonetheless, other critical needs such as caskets and embalming agents are made in the U.S., making them easier to come by.

Stack said that they now continue to wear their PPE even after the embalming process. Funeral homes are also having to use three times the amount of cleaning and disinfectant materials than they did previously.

But several funeral home workers emphasized that they simply do not know for how long a deceased victim may be infectious. Some speculated 72 hours, others said longer, but the jury is out.

Adding to the tremendous pain and grief families have to endure in the face of loss, is the notion that not only could they not be by a loved one's side in their final stretch of life, but they cannot be there to bid a proper goodbye, either. Mourners can neither gather in solace due to social distancing mandates, nor hold viewings, wakes or engage in other comforting rituals at churches, temples, mosques, and other houses of worship as almost all have been ordered shut.


Funeral homes have instead turned to other means of ceremonial farewell, shifting to virtual services, in which one permitted family member can live-stream some form of ceremony for the grieving, sheltering in their homes.

"There is a grieving process that our culture is accustomed to, and, in an instant, it was all changed due to the spread of the virus. (Virtual services) are still being worked on and logistics being figured out, but thus far, most have been recorded on a cellphone and saved for the family," Stack explained. "These videos are later put on a thumb drive and/ or burned to a disc for the family to have and to cherish forever."

And from the lens of Dr. James Mercer, owner of the Austin, Texas-based Heritage Funeral Homes, the explosion of the pathogen has stripped many of what were always considered to be fundamental rights.

"The act of funeral rites goes back as long as the human race. The act of showing respect for those we have lost has psychological benefits. Being able to show our love for the deceased allows us who remain to have something physical to do when nothing else can be done," he lamented. "(And) not being able to have physical contact during the final hours and moments of life is devastating to those who are left behind. No one wants to die alone, and the restrictions on funerals and funeral rites will have a lasting effect on the loved ones left behind."

Mercer also underscored that many workers are experiencing high levels of grief and burnout as the pandemic rages, and if one single staff member falls sick – or contracts coronavirus – it severely deepens the already maxed-out essential service.

Hospital and public health officials look inside a Freezer truck at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brooklyn, New York City, U.S., March 30, 2020. (Reuters)

Yet in one minor silver lining, directors have also noted that they see fewer fatalities from other tragedies, such as accidents and homicides as a result of the almost nationwide lockdown. But even when those woes and other deaths do strike, families are once again not allowed to cluster and subject to the same separation protocols.


And as states like New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California continue their bitter fight against the virus, other states are bracing for a deluge of deaths.

"We have been advised to expect a drastic increase in the deaths in Alabama. If that occurs, it will take a toll on funeral service professionals," added Randy Anderson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), who serves as a funeral director at Radney Funeral Home, in Alexander City, Ala. "Many are not well stocked with personal protective equipment, and there is limited refrigerated storage in most funeral homes. Funeral homes and funeral organizations are working feverishly to prepare for the possibility of an increased death rate."