End-of-life responders need ‘frontline’ recognition

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Brittany Greene and Hari Close (Courtesy Photo)

By Beverly Richards
Special to the AFRO

When you think of first responders fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare professionals initially come to mind, doctors, nurses, hospital maintenance workers and the gambit tending to the needs of those infected. However, there is a group of responders we tend to overlook, who are an integral part of the COVID-19 fight — undertakers and morticians. Known as the “last responders,” they have been on the frontline, risking their lives as they assist families. “This is a very challenging time for the Black funeral industry.  From a mental health perspective, you’re watching your community being disproportionately affected.” said Brittany Greene, vice president of operations for Vaughn Greene Funeral Services, which has four locations in Maryland and two in Philadelphia. Not unlike other frontline workers, morticians are also trying to manage the emotions of families. “I’m meeting with young clients who are making arrangements for their parents who were otherwise healthy. These are scary times,” she said.

Due to the pandemic, Greene explained, funeral homes have had to change protocols, putting tension on the way they govern everyday operations and the way they handle the emotions and consolation of clients. “From a service perspective,” said Greene, “I’m used to sitting in arrangements with [maybe] eight people around the table, shaking hands, holding hands to pray and hugging. I can’t even have a family come up and close the casket because we are trying to maintain social distancing. It’s really affected our traditions.”

Additionally, funeral directors must make sure their staff members remains safe and healthy. A bleak reality for most Black-owned funeral homes is their size and how that fact affects employees. If one employee contracts the coronavirus it can swiftly affect other staff members. “Since March 2020, nearly 160 funeral directors have died from COVID-19,” said Hari P. Close, owner of Hari P. Close Funeral Home, and general president of National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association. Close has recently attended services for three funeral directors. “You hear about nurses and doctors as being the “frontline,” but rarely do you hear about funeral directors and ministers being part of that group.”

Recently, the Maryland Health Department undertakers, funeral directors and morticians have been deemed “high risk health care workers” and now fall into one of the first groups that should be vaccinated against COVID-19. “I’m glad the Governor has finally announced funeral directors as part of Phase 1A for the vaccine. Some of my colleagues will not take the vaccine until they work out the kinks. Since I’m the person in the prep-room, I made the decision back in March to get the vaccine.” 

Despite the overwhelming number of people who have been affected by this pandemic, both directors have been able to find a silver lining. “I am spiritual, and I believe there is a purpose for all of it,” shared Greene. “The real silver lining,” said Close, “is there is a presence bigger than all of us, no matter what name you call him, that has shown us that he is in control.

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