When COVID-19 hit Omaha, businesses scrambled to do whatever they could to keep their staff and clients safe. Many shops, restaurants and bars closed their doors entirely for the first few months of the pandemic to enable workers to quarantine. Other companies sent staff to work from home in droves as the pandemic ravaged cities across America.
For Omaha’s last responders, closing the doors wasn’t an option. These essential workers continued working almost behind the scenes of the pandemic. For Kremer Funeral Home in Benson, quarantining was not possible. Funeral director Maranda Harouff recounted the beginning of the pandemic as a hectic time of change for the industry.
“We started quarantining in April, and we stopped in May because it was too crazy,” she said.
In a normal month, the funeral home sees about one cremation per day. “Now with COVID season, we have had months where we’ve doubled, where we’ve had 60-70 people in our busiest month.”
Harouff is one of just four funeral directors at Kremer.
While many Omahans were enjoying holiday gatherings, Harouff and the other staff at Kremer were working. “Our busiest month was actually November,” she said.
The home keeps track of everyone for its books, and since the pandemic has begun highlighting every COVID death in red. “It’s a lot of red in November,” Harouff said, shaking her head. “Over the holidays, we worked a lot.”
Even all that red highlighting doesn’t account for every COVID-19 death the funeral home has seen. Harouff said she believes much of the increase in volume over the past months has been due to COVID-19 indirectly. She said restrictions are a double-edged sword.
“People in nursing homes can’t see their loved ones,” she said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why people are kind of in nursing homes just letting go.”
One family lost their matriarch to the disease recently, Harouff said, but they don’t believe COVID was solely to blame. “COVID got her broken heart,” they explained to Harouff.
Restrictions on funeral attendance for a time compounded the heaviness of all this death. A temporary 10-person limit made for impossible conversations with grieving families.
“I’m the eldest of five kids. If you were to tell me ‘10 people…’” Harouff takes a deep breath. “That’s hard.”
For everyone’s safety, in many instances the most difficult and painful conversations are happening via email as families struggling in the aftermath of the disease are stuck in quarantine.
Harouff, who lost her best friend when she was in high school, went into the funeral business to personally help families in the grieving process. She never expected she would be arranging services over email.
Whereas she used to be able to sit down with loved ones and share meaningful moments of human connection, “doing stuff online, it’s more of a ‘Here are the documents. Fill them out and we can either mail you the ashes or you can come pick them up.’”
The mass death of COVID-19 has affected everyone, no matter how well-prepared or experienced they are in supporting families through loss. “Sometimes stuff gets to you,” Harouff said simply.
Harouff’s normal method of coping with the difficulties of her job is by taking a very hands-on approach to supporting loved ones of the deceased.
“Helping a family, that’s like my coping,” she said.
But with the pandemic, Harouff faces twice the amount of death with scarce opportunities to share in-person moments with her clients. The connection isn’t the same.
As normal coping methods remain out of reach in many cases, the threat of burnout looms alongside the threat of COVID for last responders. Self-care practices have taken on a dire
importance for both mental and physical health.
For Harouff that means spending time with her dog and occasionally escaping home for socially distanced visits with her family. She is also grateful for chances to safely meet up with other funeral directors having the same experience.
The physical health piece is a little more complicated for last responders. They are implementing practices to keep themselves safe wherever possible, but exposure is inevitable.
“It [the virus] is still on the body when someone dies. We do embalmings, and people still have it,” Harouff said.
Picking up the deceased from nursing homes presents another high-risk challenge, as last responders do all they can to prevent themselves from potentially exposing nursing home staff and residents to the virus.
“We get tested a lot through Test Nebraska,” Harouff said.
Despite these risks and the continual exposure to remains with the virus, funeral directors were placed behind many other frontline workers in second-tier priority to receive the vaccine.
“I just feel like some people kind of forget about us, because no one likes to talk about death,” Harouff said. “A lot of people are scared of it, especially now.”
In addition to social distancing when possible, Harouff said Kremer employs N95 masks, gowns, updated ventilation equipment and “PPE everywhere” to protect its staff. “I’m probably more cautious than other people just because I see the deaths from it,” Harouff said. “And I see it a lot.”