Tuesday 21 September 2021

Funeral homes in times of pandemic: the painful challenge of the last goodbye to the COVID-19 deceased

The pandemic forced funeral service workers to redouble their security and be stronger because although they are used to dealing with human pain, they are now in charge of handling the bodies of coronavirus victims all alone.

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(QCOSTARICA) A young man observes crying from the gate of the cemetery the moment in which his mother is buried. He is an only child, so he has no sibling in which he can take refuge and there is no one else present by his side.

Inside the pantheon are only the gravedigger and the funeral home worker, who are in charge of saying goodbye to the lady.

The bodies of those who died from COVID-19 are immediately cremated, as in this case. Likewise, if burial is chosen, they are transferred directly to the cemetery. Photography: José Cordero.

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That is the saddest scene that Juan Diego Acuña has had to live in recent months. He was the funeral home worker who said the last goodbyes to the boy’s mother, who died of COVID-19.

“It was very significant for us, not only because it was the first COVID-19 funeral that we did, but because it was a boy and an only child and the mother had to be picked up at the hospital and taken directly to the cemetery,” recalls Acuña, who is the administrator of La Merced Funeral Home.

It takes guts to work in a funeral home. The moments that those who work there live are as painful as they are moving.

And although they were already used to facing some situations, with COVID-19 everything is different, since families cannot say goodbye to their loved one as they normally do.

According to Acuña, in a traditional funeral, they usually move the body from the hospital to the place of the Vigil, where people can see the deceased without limitations, then they take them to the church and finally to the cemetery, where they can also be seen by last time.

However, when it comes to a funeral for coronavirus, funeral homes must take the body directly to cemeteries, since the body who cannot have contact with anyone else, only with the person in charge of delivering the remains to the hospital and the funeral home employee who picks it up.

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In addition, when it comes to people who die from COVID-19, no presence is allowed in the pantheon, not even the family can enter. In the case of cremation, the body is collected and goes directly to the oven.

“We have nothing left but to face it. This is the reality, although we have to swallow hard in the process, there is nothing left but to do it and continue with the procedures that must be followed right now and try to give the family comfort through the process, even if it is more difficult,” confesses Acuña.

Funeral workers use a special suit to collect the bodies of people who died by COVID-19. Photography: José Cordero.

In fact, there are funeral homes that have psychologically prepared their workers with talks and other activities.

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This is because due to the complexity of the global health situation, families need more support than usual, since on many occasions it is difficult for them – with good reason – to process and understand that processes must be more expeditious.

“We work with human pain every day, we attend to different people’s emotions and we must be prepared to be able to address them and mitigate that pain, today we have to have more spiritual strength, more mental and emotional strength, because like everything in life, there are very difficult people and others who are very docile and who accept and it is a process,” explains Carlos Fallas, owner of the San Marcos Funeral Home in Escazú.

According to Fallas, approximately 95% of people understand the circumstances, however, there is a small percentage who find it more difficult to assimilate the situation and that is where funeral home workers must act.

“One as a human being, a service provider, and who works with human pain, tries to mitigate it. However, the death of a person with COVID-19 is a little more painful, the departure is sadder because they practically cannot see their loved ones or say goodbye as is normally done,” Carlos Fallas.

“We must have more delicately when interacting with the mourners and understand the pain they are feeling and try to raise their spirits a bit, because the farewell is not as many would wish, many must be induced and told that it is not the fault of the company, neither from them, nor from the institution, nor anything like that, which is the fault of the pandemic that came to us suddenly ”, he adds.

Matter of habit

However, not only funerals for COVID-19 are different: the protocols of the Ministry of Health have forced funeral homes to change the way they work even when it comes to carrying out burials of people who died for another cause than coronavirus.

Funeral homes prepare the coffin to be able to place inside the people who died from COVID-19. Photography: José Cordero.

For example, now at funerals in which there may be wakes (that is, of people who did not die from COVID-19), the number of attendees is limited and the time is shorter. And that is difficult to explain to the mourners because they cannot be accompanied by all their loved ones.

“It happens to us a lot as families bring more people and it is very complicated because we must be reminding them in the moment of pain that even so, we must adhere to certain requirements,” says Luis Barrantes, head of operations at Funeraria La Piedad.

Conscious of the situation and of the emergency due to the pandemic, funeral homes strive to comply with health measures, which are also verified in constant inspections carried out by the police.

In addition, the protocols include a series of measures, like other establishments, such as frequent disinfection of the facilities, the use of a face mask, and social distancing.

This implies that condolences and expressions of solidarity must now be offered in a different way.

“It is no longer the same to show people affection and respect for the deceased in a church, the protocols there have changed a lot and that affects us because we have a distaste, it is not what one is used to in a funeral.

“You can no longer decorate the church 100%, it is a specific number of people both in the church and in the cemetery and the unpleasantness that remains for one is that many family members cannot say goodbye, and although the person has not died for COVID-19, they cannot see their loved one due to the protocols that exist now,” says Acuña.


Although they are used to organizing funerals, burying a person who died from COVID-19 at first gave them a lot of fear.

Funeral homes disinfect the facilities several times a day. Photography: José Cordero.

However, theirs is a job that must be done, fear or not, since their livelihood depends on it.

“We said that this was the only funeral that no one would have wanted to do, but unfortunately it is a reality and we have to be dealing with this while we do not have a vaccine or a cure. But I think we take things very calmly, because if you despair you can make a mistake and unfortunately now with this virus that is highly contagious, the slightest mistake can be detrimental to our families,” says the administrator of La Merced Funeral Home.

Generally, funeral homes are in charge of dressing, making up and preparing the bodies for the viewing and eventually the funeral, however, with the bodies of COVID-19, this ritual is unfeasible.

They are responsible for collecting the body in the morgue, as usual, but at no time can they manipulate it. In fact, the body is delivered to them in a bag, ready to be placed inside the coffin and it must be completely sealed.

“The first time you are skeptical and thinking about how things are going to be. We were dressed in two suits because one has to be removed thereafter placing the body in the coffin. Right there we seal it and place the screws. And all that has meant extra expenses for the company and they are very high because there are many things, but you have to be prepared, because you can’t tell anyone that we can’t do the service,”  says the owner of the San Marcos Funeral Home.

To collect the body, they must use special suits. In the case of La Piedad employees, they use a bodysuit, surgical masks, double gloves, a hat, protection for footwear, glasses, and if necessary N95 masks.

La Merced workers wear a protective suit, four pairs of nitrile gloves, booties, goggles, N99 masks, and a face shield.

Meanwhile, those of the San Marcos Funeral Home use double protective suits, glasses, special masks, and protection for footwear.

“It is very difficult, because the person who is there is still a human being, it is something totally shocking, the anxiety when handling a body by means of a plastic bag,” asserts Juan Diego Acuña, from Funeraria La Merced.

Before, for protection, when entering the hospital, what they used was a simple gown and without major problems, they manipulated the body.

Now, as the handling of the body of a person who died from COVID-19 is totally strict, people in hospitals just state, scared, because the bodies are being collected by people in protective equipment.

And due to how contagious this virus is, after handling and collecting the body, the transport vehicles have to be disinfected.

“It took time to get used to the equipment because it becomes a bit difficult to handle, but it is part of the protection. This is quite an experience that I honestly do not wish on anyone,” says Acuña.

This manipulation is not entirely new, since as funeral homes they must always be prepared for the burials of people with highly contagious diseases.

As explained by Carlos Fallas, from the San Marcos Funeral Home, 100% of the funeral homes have a regulation from the Ministry of Health that establishes the norms according to the types of deaths, and in one of the sections, specifically, it talks about the precautions that should be taken with people who have contagious diseases.

In addition, there is a list of infectious diseases that have been around for a long time and that they are aware of. In these cases, the procedure is the same as with COVID-19. This is the case, for example, for scarlet fever or toxoplasma: they are quick burials to avoid contagion.

“We have to be prepared, with or without a pandemic, in case a body comes to us that the doctor tells us’ they have to bury him now and they have to take these measures.”

At COVID-19 funerals in cemeteries, only the hearse can enter. Photography: José Cordero.

Logically, this will happen with those who die with or associated wtih COVID-19, because of the way it spreads, because of the little that is known, and because of the uncertainty of how long it will be controlled, as has been the case of AH1N1, or malaria, among others, which killed many people.

COVID-19 is not going to go away, the virus is going to stay and every time they have a death, they will proceed exactly the same way,” says Fallas.

And even though many businesses have been affected by the pandemic, funeral homes have maintained their workload.

They even affirm that now they have more work, because five months ago when the first cases of COVID-19 were presented in the country, many people called saying that they have relatives with contagion and that they have no provision in case they die.

They all work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Funeral homes also play an important role in society, it is a job that is difficult and entails getting involved, with great respect, in the pain of a relative or close friend,” says Fallas.

Now they only hope to continue being an accompaniment for families, mainly for those who lose a loved one due to COVID-19 and who cannot say goodbye in a close way.

“In these times it is very hard, because you see the pain of families. It is like being in a closed concentration camp, as they used to do in wars, because seeing their relatives there and not being able to do anything entails a process of assimilation, because for one it is very sad to see that they cannot send off their loved one not even in a cemetery,” Fallas concludes.

Article was translated and adapted from the Revista Dominical by La Nacion, “Funerarias en tiempos de pandemia: el doloroso reto de brindar el último adiós a fallecidos por covid-19”. Read the original, in Spanish, here.


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"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of online magazines where everything is Q! In these times of new normal, stay at home. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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