Stephanie Garcia, as one of the last responders on the front lines, worked quietly and tirelessly in the background as the number of bodies piled up.
When news reports emerged about a novel coronavirus in China, 23-year-old Stephanie Garcia, a funeral director at International Funeral Service of New York in Brooklyn, didn’t know what to make of them. She felt scared and confused, unsure as to how such a distant and invisible threat might affect New York.
But then the virus arrived in the U.S. and New York City quickly became its epicenter.
“I never thought it would get this bad,” Ms. Garcia said, who is managing as many as 14 funerals in a week, compared with her four-per-week average before the pandemic.
The surge has hit the death care industry especially hard, particularly in New York City where there have been over 21,000 deaths. Sandwiched between overflowing hospitals and backed up cemeteries, the city’s funeral homes are at maximum capacity, and the cases keep pouring in.
Employees in the death care industry are the last responders on the front lines. While they work quietly in the background, they are bearing witness to the totality of this crisis in the number of bodies left behind, the funerals robbed of traditions and the loved ones deprived of closure.
Ms. Garcia and her colleagues are putting in 12 hour shifts — minimum. And yet there are days when Ms. Garcia drives to work and catches glimpses of life marching on as if a pandemic wasn’t tearing apart the city. Just the other day, her neighbors had a party in their backyard, and no one was wearing a mask.
“I’m seeing all these people who are not taking it seriously,” Ms. Garcia said. “It’s crazy because, for me, I’m living in this nightmare right now.”
Ms. Garcia is a funeral director in an industry dominated by white men: According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the industry is nearly 80 percent male even though 70 percent of graduates from funeral director programs in the U.S. are female.
Ms. Garcia has been in the funeral business for about four years. As a director, she guides families through the process of taking care of someone who has died: retrieving the body; filling out paperwork; arranging memorials; organizing cremations and burials.
The job is as much about bringing dignity to the dead as it is caring for the living. Being a funeral director, she said, means helping mourning families navigate their heartache as they say goodbye to loved ones.
When she was starting out, Ms. Garcia’s first removal — the term used when retrieving a body — was a newborn from a hospital in Manhattan. And while that’s not the typical call, it didn’t deter Ms. Garcia.
“I knew that I was in the right field,” she said. “And I knew if I could do that, I could do anything.”
But Covid-19 has tested her confidence. Moments of feeling hopeless and helpless have, at times, led her to second guess whether this was the industry for her. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been hundreds of bodies — close to 200, Ms. Garcia estimates — in her funeral home’s care.
With cemeteries and crematories in the area booked weeks out, Ms. Garcia and her colleagues have had to turn families away. But the phone keeps ringing.
To meet the demand, her boss started renting a refrigerated truck that hums on the sidewalk beside the funeral home. Over the last few months, New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner has dispatched as many as 150 mobile trailers to hospitals and other locations across the city to store the overflow of bodies, transforming statistics into something more visible. But even that hasn’t been enough. Other funeral homes also struggling to make space have hired out refrigerated trucks. In one instance, police were called to a Brooklyn-based funeral business following reports of a suspicious smell, only to discover dozens of decomposing bodies kept in a U-Haul truck.
Her colleagues are stressed and on the edge of burn out. Ms. Garcia wonders how they’ll get through it.
“I’ve cried because of us rejecting families, because of not being able to take care of their loved ones,” she said.
Ms. Garcia’s funeral home might be the first call a family makes. Or, it might be the fifteenth. Families break down on the phone, desperate to know what they should do or where they should go. For families that can’t find a funeral parlor, the medical examiner’s office holds bodies at morgues around the city.
Bodies that do arrive at Ms. Garcia’s funeral home are kept in the freezer or in one of the other rooms that have turned into a makeshift morgue until they’re ready for burial or cremation. Some cases are direct cremation or burial, with families choosing to have memorial services at a later date. Other families still wish to have viewings, and then Ms. Garcia will embalm the body, which can take anywhere from two to four hours, before dressing the body and placing it in the coffin so the family can pay its respects.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines that embalming could be conducted on Covid-19 bodies or those suspected of having Covid-19, the World Health Organization does not recommend it.
Some funeral homes have stopped offering embalming services altogether, unless legally required (for example, if the body is going to be buried in a crypt). At first, Ms. Garcia said, it was just her boss who oversaw embalming where she works. Then she told him, “If you give me the proper P.P.E., I have no problem doing the Covid cases.” She came into this job to serve families, she said, and if embalming allows for families to say their final goodbyes, then it’s something she’s willing to do.
In addition to draining fluid from the lungs during the embalming process, one of the riskiest tasks of her job is removing an intubation tube. Doing so can produce large and visible droplets that can contain the virus. The first time she had to do it, Ms. Garcia was nervous. She disinfected the tube as well as the person’s mouth and nose before removing it. She triple layered her gloves. She remembers thinking to herself, “If something sprays at me, then I have to act fast.”
When Ms. Garcia gets home from work, she strips naked at the door and heads directly for the shower. She still lives with her parents but keeps her distance from them.
Her self-care routine includes jigsaw puzzles, something that’s kept her sane while she tries to distract herself from the pain of her job.
“If you just see what I see,” Ms. Garcia said, “then you would want to be home.”