By a New York Resident
March 11, 8:01 PM: I got a call from the nursing facility that my aunt had passed away due to complications with diabetes. As one of her three nieces in New York, it was left to me to go to the nursing home to identify her body and prepare for next steps.
Crying and distraught, I called my two friends and they met me at the nursing home. We arrived at the nursing facility only to notice the sliding doors into the facility would not open. After banging on the door for some time, the security guard finally took notice and asked us “Why are we here?”
“My aunt just passed away, and I’m here to take care of things,” I yelled through the doors. One set of glass doors opened and we were now in the entry area; there was another set of doors that led into the lobby. The guard was reluctant to let us into the lobby, because of the new rules around visiting seniors. But my aunt was dead, and I need at least to identify her body.
The head nurse came out and spoke to us through the glass, and I begged her to let us into the lobby. Finally, after a lot of pleading, she allowed us to step in. She said I had a four-hour window to contact a funeral home to pick up her body, as there was no morgue or cooling rooms at the facility. As I stood in the lobby distraught, shaking and overwhelmed with grief, a mist of some kind hit my face. The security guard, fearful of us carrying germs had sprayed Fabreze air freshener in lieu of a disinfectant spray! Along with everything that I was dealing with, I now had to deal with anxious nursing home workers scared about COVID-19.
The day prior, on Tuesday, March 10, the governor had announced a mandate that no outside family members could enter senior facilities. They was on lock down due to COVID-19, explained the nurse. And so I was not able to go any further than where we stood. That also meant I would not be able to identify my aunt’s body. I cried, begging the nurse that I just wanted to see her body, hold her hand, bless her body and say one last prayer and kiss her goodbye! I wanted the opportunity to have the cathartic exercise of wiping everything down on her table, and placing all of her belongings neatly in the bag that I brought from home. I wanted to stand in the doorway of her room knowing that I did everything I was supposed to do for her before I took my final exit. I should have been able to kiss her, pray with her, take her belongings and let her know aloud I loved her!
Begging and pleading again, the nurse finally relented! Several minutes later, she came downstairs and gave me my aunt’s belongings in a plastic garbage bag! I left the nursing home stunned in complete disbelief about how my aunt’s end of life was being handled. My friends gave me my space and allowed me to grieve on the street clenching a garbage bag.
March 12: I woke up at 6am only to learn the first funeral home I had called never made it to the facility. My aunt’s body laid where she died for over 12 hours. The second funeral home, after begging them to help me, agreed to get there ASAP! However, they had to adhere to the new rules of picking up bodies, due to COVID-19. It was a challenge I was told, however I was so distraught, I asked the funeral director not to tell me what he went through!
Friday the 13: I arrived at the funeral home. Up until that morning, my communications with the funeral director were via phone and text. When I finally met him, I was not able to hug him in gratitude or shake his hand. I kept my distance and we sat in the office at a distance until my cousin arrived. We all began the process of making the funeral arrangements and we had no idea as we sat in that office that more statewide mandates had been announced due to COVID-19.
These mandates would make the funeral almost impossible to hold. By the time we finished the arrangements, the place we booked for the repass called to say they could no longer accommodate a repass. Family members from Las Vegas, LA, Florida, Virginia, Connecticut were calling, one right after another telling me they were scared to fly and they would not make it to the funeral. The funeral director took a call from management and informed us our service would be limited to no more than 50 people. Little did I know that by the time funeral was held that number would change.
March 16: I returned to the funeral home to find caution tape wrapped around stanchions. The front desk receptionist wanted no one near her, and the sign-in book was now at the front door instead of the front desk next to her! Social distancing was in effect and everyone was walking around very cautiously. The final outfit and other necessities to prepare my aunt’s body were left on the bench in the lounge; no contact was made with any of the funeral workers. At this point, I still had not seen my aunt’s body.
March 18: The day of the viewing. COVID-19 was the talk of the town, and fears were running rampant. The funeral home opened all three viewing rooms so we could practice social distancing. They pushed back the first collapsing wall so the room that what once held 100 now held 200, the third wall was pushed back and now the room where my aunt laid could hold over 400. They wanted to make sure no one crossed the other’s path.
Then… finally, I entered the room to view my aunt’s body for the first time since her passing, and what I saw left me paralyzed! Was this the right deceased person? That did not look like my aunt. I never was given an opportunity to identify her body, after her passing, so the I didn’t know if that was my aunt! All I could think about was that my family would ostracize me because the body wasn’t identified. With her body laying so long at the nursing home along with the embalming process, the person lying before me was unrecognizable. I was sick to my stomach, and I yelled at the funeral director when he asked me what did I think. “She looks horrible! Is that even her?” I yelled at the funeral director when he asked me what did I think? I just stood there thinking I never identified her body, I never identified her body!!
And because fears of COVID-19 were growing exponentially each hour and each minute, less than 20 people showed up to pay their respects.
March 19: I had the task of getting the cashier’s check to pay the burial grounds to open up the grave site. The banks were closed, only drive-throughs were open. Due to limited staff and very long drive through lines, it took 40 minutes to make it to the window only to learn that withdrawals and deposits were being performed.
I needed a cashier’s check! Not knowing what else to do, with cash in hand, I arrived 40 minutes late, due to those long lines at the bank. I also arrived to find less than 25 people practicing social distancing in a room meant for over 400. But my cousin insisted we still needed a cashier’s check. After running around to three different banks with no success, I headed back to the funeral home, called the burial park, informed them of my current situation, and they agreed to take a cash payment.
Back at the funeral, I sat far away from my family and allowed myself to exhale. The funeral director then announced that he just got word that the burial grounds would not allow more than 10 family members at the grave-site. So we had to choose.
As I drove back to my home in Long Island, following the funeral, I couldn’t help but to think I had failed my aunt in every way possible! This certainly was not the way she would have wanted it, even in a health crisis. After all that she had done in her lifetime, she deserved a much better, more dignified send-off than what she received.
I carry the burden that I didn’t identify her body. I carry the burden that I didn’t pray over her before she was carried away. I carry the burden that her funeral was lackluster and arranged with many limitations. I carry so many burdens now.
We buried my aunt at the the beginning of this COVID-19 crisis. I only pray for those who now have to bury their loved ones.
What I experienced in hindsight will likely pale in comparison to what many now must face when grieving the dead, as the Covid-19 crisis worsens in New York City.
The author is a Long Island resident and real estate broker who was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She chose to protect her identity, out of respect for her aunt and the rest of her family.
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