Fourth-generation funeral director Patrick Kearns has seen a lot in his 25 years working around death. But nothing, he says, compares with the intensity of what he has experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Patrick and his brother-in-law Paul Kearns-Stanley are partners in a family funeral business that has been operating in New York City since 1900.
"I do think of it like a wave that hit us," says Paul. "You don't see it coming. It knocks you over, you get tossed and you're trying to figure out which way is up."
At their funeral home in Queens, that wave first hit at the beginning of April. Patrick describes suddenly taking in 100 funerals during a stretch of time when 15 would have been normal, and it was months before that pace let up. The result was consecutive 14-hour workdays and sleepless nights.
The phone rang continuously, they say, and despite their best efforts, it was impossible to return all the messages. But Patrick remembers the calls that were most jarring.
"The people that called saying, 'Can you help me? I've called 30 funeral homes.' And then I listened to the voices and could tell, this is a 25-year-old kid on the other end of the line. They have to make funeral arrangements for their parents because one is deceased and the other is on a respirator, and they're lost," says Patrick. "It weighs heavy on you."
It wasn't immediately clear how they should respond to the new reality of death during the pandemic. They had heard of other funeral homes not allowing families to see the bodies of their loved ones.
But after years of honing safety practices, including during the AIDS epidemic, they decided it was a service they had to offer.
"There was a fear of whether you could contract COVID from the bodies," says Patrick. "But this is what we do. We're undertakers, we're funeral directors, we're embalmers."
He recalls the first funeral he directed after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance against large group gatherings. It was for a man who was active in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization.
"It would have been one of these wakes that would have had people coming and going and now it's six people. ... It's the widow and a couple of her grandkids and her children. And she's in her 70s. She can't hug her grandkids as they're there to bury their grandfather," says Patrick.
"Then at the cemetery again we need to stand 50 feet away from a hole in the ground, all 6 feet apart," he continues. "And then to watch her wave to everyone from a distance and get in a car and go. I felt like — I don't want to direct another funeral again."
Patrick and Paul both describe the difficulty of the deaths and the curtailed grieving rituals. Paul says he worries that the intimacy of their work may be lost for good.
"I've always said, if you really want to get to know a person, make a funeral arrangement with them. The amount of trust they put in you. They tell you about the workings of their family, the good sides, the bad sides. They tell you about the nuts and bolts of their family, how it works. I've missed that," says Paul. "And I'm afraid that that is going to somehow not come back, to a degree anyway."
The intensity of the spring has receded a bit as New York City has brought the spread of the coronavirus better under control. But Patrick and Paul say the days are still long as they play catch up and as they look ahead toward preparing for the fall and a potential second wave.
"I am worried about what comes next," says Patrick. "I do believe what we're doing is important and we need to be doing it, but it's definitely been a difficult ride."
This story was produced by NPR's Jessica Deahl and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. It was edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro, Sarah Kate Kramer and Nellie Gilles.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
As deaths from COVID-19 rise in southern and western states, they have fallen dramatically in New York City. For funeral homes there, the lull has provided a moment to reflect. The Kearns family funeral business has operated in New York City for the past 120 years, and Radio Diaries brings us a conversation between two members of the family. They sat down in the quiet of their funeral home in North Richmond Hill, Queens, after a recent workday had ended.
PATRICK KEARNS: Hello. My name is Patrick Kearns. I'm a fourth-generation funeral director and work here with my business partner and brother-in-law.
PAUL KEARNS-STANLEY: Hi. I'm Paul Kearns-Stanley, and we're undertakers.
KEARNS: Even after being around funerals for 25 years just - this was different and definitely had a much heavier emotional toll than anything previous.
KEARNS-STANLEY: I do think of it like a wave that hit us. You don't see it coming. It knocks you over. You get tossed, and you're trying to figure out which way is up.
KEARNS: Right. It's that first week of April. We took in a hundred funerals when normally, we would've done 15. And I'm not sleeping at night. We're working 14-hour days. Yeah. Just the number of calls - the number of phone calls that were coming in was unbelievable. I couldn't return them all, but the people that called, saying, can you help me? I've called 30 funeral homes. And I'd listen to the voices and could tell - I'm like, this is a 25-year-old kid on the other end of the line that has to make funeral arrangements for their parents because one is deceased, and the other is on the respirator. And they're lost. It weighs heavy on you.
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KEARNS-STANLEY: Well - so we had a conversation about, what are we going to do? How are we going to care for these people? How much are we going to attempt to do?
KEARNS: Yeah. And we committed early to - we're going to give people the opportunity to see their loved ones. And there was a fear of whether you can contract COVID from the bodies. But again, this is what we do. We're undertakers. We're funeral directors. We're embalmers.
And I remember the first funeral I directed that is after the CDC is now - that's it. Like, no more than 10 people - for this guy who was active in the Knights of Columbus. And there would've been a lot more people there normally. You know, it would've been one of these wakes that it would've had people coming and going.
And now there's six people. They're spread out around the room. They're all wearing a mask. I'm wearing a mask. It's the widow and a couple of her grandkids and her children. And she's in her 70s. She can't hug her grandkids as they are there to bury their grandfather. And I'm up in front of the six. It is a Catholic funeral, so I'm going to say the - you know, that part of the Catholic rite.
So it just - you know, as I'm reading this prayer - and now I'm, like, having a hard time keeping it together. I'm going to break down in front of - you know, it's only six people, but I'm the funeral director. I'm not supposed to be crying at this funeral, you know?
And then, you know, to take it to the cemetery - and again, at the cemetery, we need to stand, you know, 50 feet away from a hole in the ground, all 6 feet apart. And then to watch her just kind of wave to everyone from a distance and get in a car and go, I felt like I don't want to direct another funeral again, you know? I...
KEARNS-STANLEY: Not like this.
KEARNS: No. No.
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KEARNS-STANLEY: Well, personally for me, when I walk away from these short funerals, these terse funerals, I don't have the same sense of accomplishment or that it's done the way we wanted it done. I think to make a funeral, there's a lot of parts to it. And during that process, you - you know, you make a connection to people. You bond with them. And I've always said, you know, if you really want to get to know a person, make a funeral arrangement with them. The amount of trust they put in you - they tell you about the workings of their family - the good sides, the bad sides, the - I miss that. And I'm afraid that that is going to somehow not come back - to a degree, anyway.
KEARNS: But now we have a lull here, hopefully. We have a chance to get some rest, catch up. But I'm worried about what comes next. You know, there's no historical precedent other than 1918, which that flu pandemic was, like, three waves. There was the initial wave, a fall wave and then one a year later. So I am very fearful and want to make sure we're prepared for those next two waves. I do believe what we're doing is important, and we need to be doing it. But it has definitely been a difficult ride.
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CHANG: That was New York City undertaker Patrick Kearns and his partner and brother-in-law Paul Kearns-Stanley. Their conversation was produced by Jessica Deahl and the team from Radio Diaries. You can hear more from their series Hunker Down Diaries on the Radio Diaries podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.