“Around half of our funerals last month were Covid cases”: A funeral director on how his job has changed in the pandemic

“Around half of our funerals last month were Covid cases”: A funeral director on how his job has changed in the pandemic

I’m a fourth-generation funeral director: my great-grandfather founded Cardinal Funeral Home in 1925, and my grandfather and father were both funeral directors, too. We’ve been in our current location at 366 Bathurst Street since 1941. I’ve worked in this business pretty much my whole life: in high school, my younger brother, Andrew, and I would work here every summer. We did everything from washing cars to painting fences to parking cars to delivering flowers. Later, I studied economics at McGill, but partway through, I decided to follow in my family’s footsteps and become a funeral director. I remember going down into the basement and reading through all of our ledger books going back to 1925. I saw my great-grandfather’s name, the same name as mine, and all the details around the funeral home in his handwriting. It struck me that I had the opportunity to continue a family legacy. I got my funeral director’s licence at Humber College, worked as an intern funeral director for a year, then worked as a licensed funeral director for five years. When my dad retired two years ago, he moved me and my brother into leadership roles. I’ve been president for the last two years, and my brother is director of operations.

Most days, I meet families at their lowest, when they’ve lost someone. After I’ve talked to them for two to three hours, they leave with a little bit of comfort, knowing we’re going to take care of things. After a person has been buried, and the family has said their goodbyes, they give us a hug at the cemetery and thank us. That’s the best part of the job—that’s why I do this.

We serve a diverse clientele. We’re near Little Italy and Little Portugal, so we see a lot of Roman Catholics, but we also serve Ismaili Muslims, Buddhists and non-religious people. We offer lots of special services, like jewelry made in the impression of the deceased person’s thumbprint, dove releases at the cemetery or hiring an organist to play at the funeral.

Covid-19 has changed our interactions with the living more than the dead. The Bereavement Authority of Ontario has mandated that there can be no more than 10 people at a funeral. That number includes clergy, so if someone wants a Catholic priest, they can only have nine other people. That’s been really tough. We’ve had a few families who still want a fairly traditional visitation, so we make people wait in their cars and and come inside one by one to greet the family. We’ve set up the rooms with velvet ropes to block people from being able to touch or hug the family, but they can go up to the casket, say their goodbyes and speak to the families from two metres apart. It’s very awkward.

One thing that I’ve heard recently is, “Grief shared is grief diminished.” When people can’t see or hug their friends and family, it’s difficult for them. We have a bereavement counsellor who offers one-on-one sessions to talk people through their grief, and far more people are taking advantage of her sessions than before because they’re not getting support from others. She used to meet them in person, but now she talks to them over the phone. We’ve also started to stream our services on Zoom so people can watch remotely. They’ve been working well. At one funeral the other morning, my brother turned on the stream before the service started and there were already 30 family members waiting.

Last month was one of the busiest we’ve had in a couple of years. We handled around 100 funerals, and almost half were people who had died of Covid. One day, we met with nine clients, and seven were funerals for people who had passed from Covid. But we’re not overwhelmed. It’s not like New York City where some places have had to rent storage outside their funeral home. We’ve been able to accommodate every family, but it has been challenging. There are some families who would normally have two full days of visiting before the service, but we aren’t able to offer that because there are too many other families we have to accommodate at the same time.

There is some risk of contracting Covid-19 from a deceased person, but funeral directors are trained to treat every person as if they’re potentially infectious. We’ve always worn personal protective equipment, whether the deceased was Covid positive or not: shoe covers, gown, gloves, a surgical mask and a shield. Now, if a family wants a viewing for someone who’s died from Covid, we require that they embalm their loved one, because it slows the natural progression of death and also helps to disinfect the body. We’re very careful.

We have a purchaser who buys everything from toilet paper to cars, and she’s had a hard time finding masks and gowns since before lockdown. We’re getting a lot of unsolicited emails trying to sell us masks or gloves for eight, nine, 10 times the regular price, but we’re sticking with our regular suppliers. We’re trying to be smart and ration the PPE and only use it when it’s really necessary, when we’re embalming or handling a deceased person.

We have two locations, on Bathurst and Annette, and usually some staff work at both locations. We’ve changed that protocol so no one cross-contaminates. We’ve also split our staff into teams, so everyone on the front lines is only working with the same three or four people. At our Bathurst location, our funeral directors are working 14-hour days, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., one day on and two days off. At our Annette Street location, they’re working the same shifts two days on, two days off. After a family uses a visitation room, we wipe down all chairs and door handles with Clorox wipes, and we’ve closed our coffee lounge so people can’t congregate afterwards. The embalming room is cleaned using heavy-duty chemicals, and we ensure all the instruments and the table used are cleaned extra carefully. We haven’t set up a separate room to embalm people who have deceased from Covid-19, because that might create some complacency, so we’re constantly disinfecting and cleaning and making sure we’re as diligent as possible.

Our biggest challenge is trying to figure out the best way to serve our families. We can only do what we do, and abide by what the government has mandated. I keep hearing from my friends, “You must be rolling in the dough,” but that’s really not the case. The reality is that our business is facing a challenge too. Funeral homes are used to providing services we now can’t, like receptions and limousines, so we’re seeing a drop in our revenues.

This experience has been tough on our funeral directors. They come to work every day, putting their lives at risk to help people during their worst moments, whether it’s a pandemic or not. And now they’re not able to help the families as well as they have. A couple of them have come to me and said they’ve had to take a moment to go to a room and cry because of the sad stories they’ve been hearing. One family, whose loved one died of Covid, couldn’t visit their relative in the hospital  because they’d expose themselves to the virus and be unable attend the funeral afterwards. Another woman was days away from turning 100, and the family had already created a poster with photos from her life to celebrate her birthday. She didn’t make it, so they had to bring that poster to her funeral.

It’s a calling for people to do this job. It’s not a Monday to Friday job, and it’s not a job you can go home and shut off. We’re just doing our best to help people and get them through this time.

—As told to Isabel B. Slone