By Kara Apel
Hope — it’s a word that came up time and time again during recent conversations with funeral directors across the country who have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
As many deathcare professionals nationwide obtain their first dose of the vaccine, many are echoing sentiments of relief and optimism about the future.
It’s a light at the end of the tunnel that those who were on the front lines during some of the darkest days of the pandemic so desperately needed.
D.J. Wright, the owner of Wright & Ford Family Funeral Home and Cremation Services in New Jersey, said his firm did a month’s worth of calls within just three days. Families would call his funeral home from other states because they couldn’t find anyone who would — or could — take their loved one.
“We were looking for anything that could keep our optimism alive. I pride myself on being an eternal optimist, but when you’re seeing some of the horrific things that my colleagues and I have seen — and are still seeing — anything that provides a beacon of hope is a good thing, and the vaccine is really one of those very strong beacons of hope that actually has the potential to bring us out of this pandemic,” he said.
There’s no question that the pandemic has hit funeral directors across the country hard, and some professionals also mourned the loss of their own loved ones during these difficult times.
Steve Wright, president of Wright Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Minnesota, lost two family members during the pandemic and understands firsthand how difficult it is for families who are unable to host the final farewell they’ve envisioned.
“Funeral service is not very rewarding when you can’t do for people what they really want to do,” he said. “These funerals are still meaningful and still healing, but you’ve got one arm tied behind your back because you can’t serve lunches, and you can’t have too many people in one place, and you can’t have any physical connection. Most funeral directors, including us, are used to hugging our families that we serve, and all this kind of standoffish-ness is foreign to us.”
Chad Frye, funeral director and market leader at Thompson Funeral Homes in South Carolina, said his number one priority throughout the pandemic has been keeping all of his team members healthy because none of them can easily be replaced.
“At the end of the day, there’s not a lot of funeral directors to go around. We can’t just pull from an agency for more help if we need it. We’re kind of the last line of defense,” he said.
Taking On New Roles During the Pandemic
Ashlee Etzweiler of Etzweiler Family Funeral Service in Pennsylvania said it’s been extremely time-consuming finding PPE for her team and searching for replacements when their vendors have come up short.
At the funeral home, they’ve set up a shelf where they store all of their available PPE, which they encourage employees to use, even if it’s for their personal needs.
“We tried to make it as consistent as possible and really make it so employees didn’t have to worry about finding supplies. If their kids were going to school, and they needed supplies, they could come and take supplies from the supply cabinet for the kids to put in their backpacks. Everyone was covered, and we knew that everyone had access,” she said.
Etzweiler is using her expertise in tracking down PPE to help local grassroots organizations and nonprofits find masks and hand sanitizer too.
Advocating For Your Employees
Although the funeral directors who were interviewed for this article did not have difficulty obtaining their vaccines, this isn’t the case nationwide.
D.J. Wright said he was determined from the get-go to ensure funeral directors were not neglected during the vaccine rollout and worked with local emergency management agencies from the beginning.
“I wanted to be darn sure that we were not forgotten. It has nothing to do with ego. It’s the fact that we are usually the last to get what we need, but in this case, we needed to be the first,” he said.
For those who are struggling to get vaccines for their staff, he has this advice.
“If your county health department or whoever is in charge is not giving you the proper recognition to get the vaccine, you need to elevate your request to their superiors, and frankly, bring it to the public if you have to,” he said. “Post on social media, go to county commissioner meetings, call your local news outlet or media publications. This isn’t about getting anybody in trouble, but this can’t be the ‘good ol’ boy’ network of who knows who. We’re in the middle of a pandemic – there is no room for people to not do what is right.”
The International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association published this letter for funeral directors to present to their local health departments or to the agencies who are distributing the vaccines to help them advocate for themselves.
“People really need to know that they’re not alone out there and that they can push through. There are certain things that we back off on and other things we push for, and this is one of those where funeral directors really need to push and make sure they’re at the front of the line,” D.J. Wright said.
The Logistics of Getting the Vaccine
When it came to getting his staff vaccinated, Frye said he was in awe of just how smoothly the process went. So far, 11 of his employees have been vaccinated.
“They had it really dialed in. From what you’re seeing on the news and how people are struggling signing up for the shot, we experienced nothing like that. It was seamless,” he said.
Steve Wright said his staff members were able to receive their vaccine within hours of receiving the call from their local county health department.
“I didn’t have to sell this at all … I forwarded the link to every one of our staff, and everybody jumped on it and got it done. There was no further prompting needed. Everyone was eagerly awaiting this opportunity,” he said.
One of his employees was in Colorado when the firm learned they’d be able to get vaccinated, and the employee flew back right away just to get the vaccine.
“I can’t say enough how grateful we are for modern science that brought this to us. Our firm was here in 1919 in the other pandemic, and they didn’t have this opportunity to see hope coming at the end; they just had to kind of ride it out,” Steve Wright said.
D.J. Wright noted that everything in his county was very well organized and that all of his front-line workers have been vaccinated. He is still working to get the rest of his staff vaccinated because of the shortage.
Etzweiler’s parents, who are both in their 80s, continued working at their firm during the pandemic. She feels relieved that both of her parents received their first vaccine.
“They were in there working side-by-side with their employees,” she said. “We did work together to keep them away from the COVID cases, but they were still in there picking up the slack from everything else.”
Unsure About the Vaccine?
All the funeral directors interviewed for this article noted that none of their team members experienced adverse side effects.
They noted some staff members experienced the usual vaccine responses, such as fatigue, pain in the arm at the injection site, slight chills, and low fevers.
“I know that there are a lot of unknowns, and I don’t dismiss those unknowns. I will admit that the night before my vaccine, I probably tossed and turned the whole night,” Etzweiler said. “But at the end of the day, getting the vaccine and having a reaction where you might have some arm pain and a little bit of a fever and some chills and being tired versus possibly ending up on a ventilator — when you look at those risks, it’s a no-brainer to me to get the vaccine.”
Moving Forward Post-Vaccine
While many funeral directors who received their vaccines are feeling optimistic, there is also a prevailing sense of caution.
“I certainly believe that vaccinations do give us all a sense of comfort, but we still have to keep our wits about ourselves and ensure that we’re still doing the right things daily until we know that this pandemic is truly under control,” Frye said.
D.J. Wright has stressed to his team that they cannot become complacent.
“We’re not backing off of anything. We’re staying as vigilant as we were when we were in the middle of the height. I hate to say it, but we are in the middle of what is a new height, and numbers are skyrocketing here, which is scary and sad at the same time,” D.J. Wright said.
Ultimately, with more vaccines being distributed every day, there is a sense that an end to our “new normal” is on the horizon.
“From day one, we’ve had to be out there. We never did quit doing what we do, and we just kind of carried this fear around with us, and now, it’s largely gone, and we can at least say goodbye to that,” Steve Wright said.