Even Dead Bodies Pose Risks

Undertakers are scrambling to adapt to the complexities of COVID-19.

Edmon de Haro

I have a friend who makes his living among the dead. On the phone last week, his voice was unfamiliarly heavy. “Everyone at the office is stressed,” he told me. “It’s like anger and hindsight combined.” Andrew de Michaelis, 31, had just returned from a shift at his family crematory in Orange County, California. He was preparing to stay up late with his younger brother, Will, to map out their plans for the next several weeks, perhaps months, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in his region. “It’s hard not to want to scream at someone and be like, ‘Listen and understand what I’m telling you—it’s worse than you think.’”

Undertaking is famously recession-proof. Before entering the cremation industry, de Michaelis worked at one of those two-syllable lifestyle start-ups that hawk twee household products. You’ve probably seen the ads: flat fonts, pastel backgrounds, tranquil characters living serene little lives. Until a couple of weeks ago, these “premiocre” objects that plop on your doormat may have given you the false sense of pretty much having your life together. Now spending money on anything but food and toilet paper feels foolish, and every new box that arrives with a knock feels like a threat. How many hands touched it? Was it coughed on? How long will those hypothetical droplets linger? Perhaps your coronavirus anxiety has kept your mind roaming further down that path: Who will I lose this year? Will I get to say goodbye?

Death rates typically rise after the Christmas season, and the funeral business is steady throughout the year. But the prospect of a sudden spike in fatalities for any reason—not least a pandemic—is an infrastructure nightmare. De Michaelis’s business takes about a week to retrieve a body, prepare it, store it, incinerate it, and deliver the ashes to the family. A glut of new bodies raises the horrific chance of a mix-up. “One hundred percent of cremation has to be 100 percent, 100 percent of the time,” he said. “You can’t have a mistake.”

The crematory de Michaelis works at is high volume, meaning his team incinerates hundreds of bodies each month and several thousand a year. The night we spoke, he estimated that 60 corpses were in the mortuary’s refrigeration unit, about 10 short of capacity. As governors scramble to retrofit convention centers and dormitories into makeshift hospitals to save the living, many in the mortuary industry are trying to figure out what to do with all the bodies. In Spain, authorities have converted a Madrid ice rink into a makeshift morgue.

“It’s a cascading effect,” de Michaelis told me. “Trump isn’t really doing his best to help out hospitals, and they’re the first ones that need it. We’re the last part, so we’re even getting less guidance,” he said. “If we one day walked in and there were too many bodies to fit, where would they go? And do we have government support? We don’t even know who to call. There’s been no funeral-industry communication.”

Because this is a novel coronavirus, researchers do not yet know how long it can live inside a person it kills. This uncertainty poses a risk not only to health-care workers trying to save a life, but to those who take over when that life ends. Workers who retrieve bodies from hospitals and handle the physical acts of cremation are at highest risk for infection. As of this week, several of the mortuary’s 17 employees are working from home. Meanwhile, the office workers and counselors, like the de Michaelis brothers, who deal mostly with the families of the dead, are trying to adopt social-distancing practices in a place that offers intimate, communal grieving. They’ve already had to suspend all traditional funerals. “Today I had to tell someone who wanted a viewing that they could only bring two people, and screaming ensued—You’re gonna have to tear my mother off her son’s body!” Will de Michaelis told me.

Like hospitals, grocery stores, and pharmacies, mortuaries have been deemed essential businesses by state governments, meaning they won’t temporarily close to help flatten the curve. But what was once a proud “open door” establishment has been forced to lock its entrance to maximize safety for those inside. These are high-contact operations, with new customers coming in every day, broadening the potential viral circles for themselves and the workers. The staff now wear masks and gloves for every face-to-face interaction with customers. Will has been communicating with nurses through Instagram about the critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Last week he was on the hunt for N95 respirators for his co-workers; he told me a pack of 10 on Amazon was selling for $200. They’ve recently started what he calls a “drive-through” service, in which an employee hustles an urn of ashes out to an idling car to minimize close contact.

Even absent a pandemic, some who walk in are too stricken to think clearly. Andrew de Michaelis said his job is to hold someone’s hand as they complete various tasks while in a state of shock, often answering questions like: Do I call Social Security? Do I have to cancel all their credit cards?

Southern California is believed to be far from its coronavirus apex, and the number of preventable deaths will surely rise as the hospital system becomes overwhelmed. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told my colleague Todd S. Purdum that he believes his city is “six to 12 days” behind the horror unfolding in New York. “I feel like it could get to a point in two weeks where the government needs to be involved,” de Michaelis said. “And if that’s the case, they should be involved now.”