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How a Funeral Director Works During a Pandemic

The co-owner of a South Side fixture talks about prepping coronavirus victims, taking calls from “terrified” families, and grieving when you can’t even embrace.

Charles Childs Jr. at AA Rayner and Sons Funeral Home in Greater Grand Crossing   Photo: Provided

This is the first in a series of first-person pieces examining how local jobs have changed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Charles Childs Jr.

Funeral director, AA Rayner and Sons Funeral Home

My family has been in the funeral business for over 100 years, and we’ve never experienced anything like this. Even the AIDS epidemic was not as frightful as what we’re seeing now. The last month has been devastating. We’ve had five cases of people who passed from COVID-19. You can really hear the sadness and uncertainty in the families’ voices. People are terrified. It’s affected the black community much harder, and I can see that in the number of calls.

I just met with a wife who lost her husband to the virus. Her concern now is that she and her family might be infected. I was also approached by a daughter whose mom is on a ventilator and was told she likely only has two days left. It’s a trying time.

When we get these calls, we try to comfort people and let them know that we’ll do the best we can but that we have to follow the guidelines from the governor, the mayor, and the Centers for Disease Control. For services, we can’t have more than 10 people visit at a time, and they must stay at least six feet apart from one another and from the body. That’s really tough because gathering together is an essential part of the grief process. Hugging is a natural way that we show our emotions.

We also insist that if the deceased has tested positive for COVID-19, we cannot show the remains unless we embalm the body first, which is an additional cost. Normally, we have no problem showing untreated remains — we want the family to see their loved ones—but if there has been COVID-19 exposure, we’ve been instructed not to open the body bag.

We disinfect our facility on a regular basis. About every two hours we start walking around and wiping things down. It’s been tough to get some supplies like face masks, gloves, and dressing gowns because most of the suppliers are stretched thin. It’s hard on my staff. We’re on the front lines. We keep six feet away from one another and most of us wear masks. A few employees have not come in due to concerns about the virus. That’s understandable. Just the other day, we had to do body removals from two houses. The staff who went in were masked and gloved, and while there was supposed to be no COVID-19 exposure in those two cases, you just don’t know.

Yesterday, I had to go to a house to get some authorizations signed. I had to stand on the porch, with my mask and gloves on, while the wife stood inside the door, with her mask and gloves on, as we talked to each other. As a funeral professional, I felt so awkward trying to talk to a spouse about her husband through the door. I’ve been doing this 40 for years and that is just not how we conduct business. This is an experience I will never forget.

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