The funeral home overwhelmed by New York’s conveyor belt of death
The phone doesn’t stop ringing at the Gerard J Nuefeld funeral home in New York City.
Those who turn up at the door look bewildered and deeply anxious. Robert Lugo arrives sobbing into his protective mask.
He, like so many you see in this neighbourhood, is wearing gloves.
Robert is visibly shaken and it turns out his loss is especially raw. His grandmother, Ana Diaz, died last night at Elmhurst Hospital.
The hospital is at the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak. Staff there are exhausted dealing with the surge in patients, and protective equipment is in desperately short supply. One doctor described the situation as apocalyptic.
Robert breaks down as he tells me that this grandmother – “the glue” in his family – died without any family by her side.
It is an unfathomable burden for him to bear, and sadly, it is one so many are now forced to endure.
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“My grandmother died alone,” he tells me, his voice breaking. “We didn’t even see her and couldn’t touch or talk to her. We couldn’t give her that boost of morale to say, hey, you know, you got to come out of this. We need you to come out of this. There was nothing.”
Little over a week ago, his family were all together celebrating her 80th birthday.
“She embraced every life she touched,” Robert says.
Now, half of her family have tested positive. They’re not only deprived of the chance to grieve her passing, but they’re isolated and struggling with their own symptoms too.
Joe Nuefeld Jr is working all hours alongside his father, trying to offer dignity to the dead and support their distraught families.
“The crematoriums really aren’t letting anybody in,” he tells me. “The cemeteries are, for the most part, telling people to stay in their cars and just watch the burial from the gravesite.”
He drives us to St Michael’s Crematorium.
A family that is following him in a car behind have turned up hoping they can get in, but they’re not even allowed through the gates.
Instead, they’re forced to hand over their candle to Joe so he can place it next to the coffin. He clutches it protectively in his hands as he drives through the grounds – conscious of how fleeting it feels for the relatives watching on.
“Sometimes when it’s so brief, it almost leaves them still feeling hollow,” Joe says. “Like, you know, what just happened? They don’t have enough time to process it. It’s heartbreaking. It’s really sad.”
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Back at the funeral home, his father Joseph Sr says their work has been non-stop for a fortnight.
“It just got crazy… people are unfortunately passing away in big numbers,” he said.
“Because they live in this area and I’m the only funeral home left in this area, they’re coming to me.
“I’m trying to accommodate them as best I can… I think we had about 12 services scheduled. And shortly after I left the office, within two hours, I had three more services. And then this morning, as soon as we came in, we put on three or four more services.”
I’m struck by just how stressful their job has become. This is a father and son who take pride and comfort in accommodating the many ceremonies and rituals this diverse neighbourhood desires.
There are more than 100 nationalities in the area – many who traditionally hold large gatherings to say goodbye to their relatives.
Joe Sr says they are trying to let individuals briefly see the caskets before they take them away, but they know they have to closely monitor numbers.
The father and son wear protective clothing where embalming the bodies. But like all undertakers, they are vulnerable to infected bodies.
Nonetheless, they are desperately determined to help a community that’s coming to terms with being separated at the most demanding of moments – a surreal and cruel consequence of this pandemic. Watching them work is both humbling and exhausting.
With the predicted peak of this virus two weeks away, their days aren’t getting any shorter.