How last responders risk their lives to honour the dead in the pandemic
While COVID-19 has radically changed how undertakers do their jobs, the mission hasn't changed
April was cruel. So was May.
Through the height of the outbreak during those months, a Londoner was dying almost every day. Over 61 days, there were 52 COVID-related deaths. So many, funeral director Steve Masters was working around the clock.
"I haven't seen my kids in three months," he said. "I haven't shaken a hand in months and that's a trademark of mine because I shake hands with everyone."
Much like the coronavirus crisis has reshaped our lives, it has also drastically reshaped death. Now bodies are picked up at hospitals within one hour or less, cemeteries are open 24/7, funerals can only be attended by 10 people or less and mourners can no longer witness the cremation of their loved ones.
Also known as an undertaker, or mortician, a funeral director is a person whose business is the preparation and transportation of bodies for funerals, burials or cremation. This spring Masters and his team are handling 60 to 80 deaths a month, nearly double the 40 calls a month they would normally get.
Masters relies on the help of his two assistants, Alannah Hadbai and his nephew, Cody Masters.
"Once Cody and I went from 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.," Hadbai said, noting they had seven calls that night in April. "Sometimes we don't get a call, but since the pandemic, when it rains it pours."
It's not just the pace of deaths, it's the constant vigilance. While the Ministry of Health said the risk of mortuary staff catching COVID-19 from a body is low, funeral directors take few chances.
"We have to treat every body like it has COVID," Steve Masters said.
It means identification bracelets are now taped to body bags instead of wrapped around an ankle, paperwork goes in plastic bags, and mortuary staff can no longer take extra belongings.
"We are mandated not to take anything extra. If you want it, you put it in the body pouch," he said. "I have to protect myself and my staff."
The problem is, bodies aren't always marked. Since April, funeral directors haven't been able to enter long-term care homes or hospitals to pick up the dead in an effort to stop the spread of the illness.
Instead, mortuary staff have had to rely on nurses and personal support workers, who don't always understand the protocols and sometimes don't wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
"They don't know our work. We don't know their work. They take care of the living. We take care of the dead," Masters said.
'We have to treat everyone like they're our loved ones'
While the virus has drastically reshaped some aspects of the job, the mission is still unaltered: comfort the living while maintaining the dignity of the dead. Masters recalled a recent housecall where he and his nephew Cody went to pick up a man who had died after being bedridden for some time.
The man's husband promised he could see the backyard garden one last time, and the husband told Masters he didn't want to break his pledge.
"I said 'We'll honour that' and ... so we carried him to the backyard before we placed him in the vehicle," Masters said.
"It's the little things," said Alannah Hadbai, who is still studying to be a funeral director.
She said even though she must treat every body like it's potentially infected, it's not reason not to treat the deceased with dignity and respect.
"Even saying hello to the deceased," she said. "It's still a loved one, it's still a person, like, 'Oh, good morning. Are you ready? We're just going to move you here. We're just going to move there.' They appreciate it."
Despite the added risk, stress and accelerated pace of the job, Steve Masters said in the pandemic, it's more important than ever to do the job with care, tenderness and even love.
"I'll talk to them like it's my mum. Because everyone we have to treat like it's our own loved ones."