In “The Last of the First Responders,” published in June in Vanity Fair, Sanburn and photographer Peter van Agtmael profile a 120-year-old Queens funeral home as it bowed but refused to break under the crush of COVID-19. The subject is grim, but lifted throughout by the sensitivity and dedication of the facility’s workers: the soft-spoken brothers-in-law who are the fourth-generation owners of the family funeral business; the young mother who dresses bodies with tenderness even as she misses her own son’s first steps and first words because of the relentless demands of the job; the duo who make runs to hospital morgues to find and collect bodies.
Elevated by revealing details — like the way one of the owners tucks in his tie so it won’t get caught on passing gurneys — Sanburn tells a vivid and deeply researched story about a facet of the COVID crisis some people may prefer not to think about.
It’s not the first time Sanburn, formerly a staffer with TIME magazine, has taken on weighty subjects; his bylines tops stories about lethal injection and suicide hotlines. One, about the rise of cremation, helped inform the funeral home piece for Vanity Fair.
“I think I’m drawn to these kinds of stories because of their inherent gravity,” he said.
Sanburn reported the Queens funeral home piece during April and May as COVID raged through New York, which at the time had the ignoble distinction of leading the U.S. in cases and deaths. The story starts the day after New York announced a one-day record: almost 600 confirmed deaths from COVID. The Kearnses, who own three funeral homes in Queens and one in Long Island, went from an average of 450 funerals in a year to 360 in just 10 weeks; they grieved over the hundreds more they had to turn down. In one of their parlors in Queens, seven bodies waiting to be embalmed would make them feel pressured in the past; now there were 70.
The access Sanburn and van Agtmael were granted was breathtaking. They wove between caskets in the crowded funeral home. They saw inside a refrigerated container that Kearns bought to hold bodies he could no longer fit in the funeral home. Sanburn captured the ways, big and small, that the funeral professionals made their way through the crisis — one always uses GPS while driving to collect a body, concerned he will miss familiar exits because of distraction; another works weeks without a day off until he hits his head in a fall.
Sanburn did most of his interviews over the phone, but also conducted many in person; he interviewed several sources with a combination of the two. The opening scene, which describes a service during the height of the pandemic in New York, was reconstructed after multiple interviews.
“At that time in New York, I was nervous to go outside, let alone spend a day in the funeral home,” he said. “I finally visited in person as the pandemic began to wane a few weeks later. But Patrick (Kearns) had done such a good job describing that service through multiple interviews that I felt like I could accurately recreate it.
The resulting story — both in words and pictures — takes readers into a reality of COVID that is seldom seen and hard, but necessary, to look at. Indeed, despite the sensitivity of the piece, some will find the descriptions and images disturbing.
I asked Sanburn about the whys and hows of his story. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. It is followed by an annotation of the text.
How did this profile come about. The focus — an intimate portrait of one funeral home during the COVID crisis — and access are both amazing.
One of the features I wrote as a staffer for TIME magazine was about the rising popularity of cremation in the U.S. and how the funeral home industry was changing. I first pitched that story to Radhika Jones, one of TIME’s top editors at the time, who is now Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief. That story was one she had always remembered, and when the COVID-19 outbreak was enveloping New York City, she reached out to see if I was interested in telling the story of one funeral home during the crisis.
I would love to say that I called up a dozen funeral homes throughout New York looking for the perfect one to profile. The crude truth behind the curtain is that I reached out to one, the one I ended up profiling, Leo F. Kearns Funeral Homes in Queens. I was looking for a funeral home that was as close to the epicenter of the outbreak in New York City as possible, which in late March was near the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens. I read a few local stories quoting Patrick Kearns, the fourth-generation director of the family’s funeral home business, and emailed him. He responded within a few hours.
I initially thought it would be difficult to get a funeral home to say yes to a magazine writer spending weeks reporting on how they operated, especially when they were being overwhelmed with bodies. I basically didn’t want to be in the way. So I thought I’d have to spend days finding the right one along with a funeral director who was amenable. But the first time I talked to Patrick, I realized I couldn’t have landed on a better interview subject. He was incredibly open and transparent. I called him two to three times a week for almost two months, and he later told me our late-night talks were like a form of therapy. So the level of access was really all thanks to Patrick’s willingness to talk.
How long did it take to report and write?
My first conversation with Patrick was on April 6 and our last interview was toward the end of May. I started writing the story around mid-May after I felt like I had the bulk of the reporting completed.
What experiences or skills helped as you reported and wrote this piece?
I’ve written a number stories related to death, most of which were for TIME, including features on the rise of cremation, the national suicide prevention hotline, and the problems with lethal injection in the U.S. But the cremation story provided me with a basic understanding of how the funeral home industry operates, its history, and how it’s changed over the years.
What’s your takeaway from this story that you might draw on in the future, or that would be useful for other journalists?
It’s often difficult, especially these days, to be able to write for an outlet that allows enough time to fully tell a story like this one. I’m not the only journalist who has written about funeral homes during the coronavirus outbreak. But I don’t think anyone spent as much time reporting on one funeral home. To tell the story of what it was like for Patrick and his colleagues to deal with waves of bodies coming through their doors, two months was the minimum. And it made me realize that allowing enough time to let a story fully play out can be a writer’s best friend.
Who did you work that helped the story come together?
Radhika Jones, Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief, first pitched the story to me. I then worked with a VF editor named Eric Bates on the front end, who did a wonderful job helping me frame the story, and VF editor Daniel Kile on the back end, who helped me work through some of the details and gave it a gentle restructure that helped it flow.
What other writers do you read for inspiration?
I love reading Raymond Carver because I’m continually amazed by the depth of character and emotion he can convey with an economy of words. I’m currently reading “The Sound and the Fury,” by William Faulkner, but that’s honestly more because I’ve never read it. In the journalistic, non-fiction realm, the last great collection of essays I read was “The White Album,” by Joan Didion. And I try to read anything I see by Lawrence Wright, George Packer, Michael Lewis, and increasingly Nikole Hannah-Jones. Those last four writers especially do a wonderful job of cogently and concisely explaining big, sprawling topics through stories that feel urgent and are immensely compelling.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; responses from Sanburn in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
“The Last of the First Responders”: Inside One Funeral Home’s COVID-19 Crisis
At the height of the pandemic, funeral homes struggled—and sometimes failed. One in New York City got it right.
BY JOSH SANBURN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER VAN AGTMAEL
JUNE 25, 2020On the overcast morning of April 8, the day after New York City announced its highest one-day count of confirmed deaths from COVID-19—almost 600—Patrick Kearns, the co-owner of the Leo F. Kearns Funeral Homes, stood inside one of his chapels in Queens, struggling to keep his composure in front of six scattered people in masks trying to mourn. The man next to him in the open casket, one of the city’s thousands of probable COVID-19 deaths, had known Patrick’s father, Thomas, who ran the family-owned funeral business for decades before Patrick and his brother-in-law, Paul Kearns-Stanley, took over in the mid-2000s. Because the Kearns family knew the deceased, Patrick wanted to direct the funeral himself The opening is a vivid scene-setter. Why did you decide to open with it? I debated how to open the article for weeks. I finally decided to recount this particular service for several reasons. It occurred at the height of the pandemic in New York City, early April. It was the first time Patrick had conducted a funeral since the outbreak, giving him his first glimpse at exactly how the coronavirus was changing the services themselves. There was a personal connection for Patrick in that the deceased knew his father, which ties into the theme of the funeral home being a fourth-generation business. And I think a funeral service is also naturally a scene. Patrick stood at the front, the mourners were scattered throughout the room, the casket was nearby, and Patrick recited traditional Catholic prayers he’s read for years. All those factors together made it in my mind a fitting opener.
It had been weeks since he’d led a service. As the virus infiltrated the city and turned Queens into an epicenter of the global pandemic, Patrick Kearns remained more or less hunkered inside his brown-walled basement office in South Richmond Hill, doing his best to field the growing number of calls from families desperate for a funeral home to say yes to taking in their deceased. Sometimes, he visited hospitals to personally remove the dead, including Elmhurst Hospital, just 20 minutes away, which had a staggering number of coronavirus deaths. But he’d stopped visiting with families to make arrangements, or directing funerals, altogether.
In better times, when only a handful of bodies are in his care, Patrick enjoys getting to know the families, hearing stories about how Mom loved Astoria Park in the fall, how their grandfather drank single-malt scotch every night before bed. He would’ve enjoyed doing the same with this family. But he couldn’t. Because after this one, there would be another family, and then another, and another, and the countless others calling, begging, Can you please take my mother? Can you please take my father?
Patrick looked out in front of him. It was the first time he’d actually seen what the virus was doing to the grieving, the ones it had left behind. Normally, mourning families are huddled, rows of them filling his chapels. The half dozen people here were distanced and solitary. The space felt hollow. It was unnatural. He never thought anything would be worse than September 11. But this is worse, he thought. We can’t come together.
He tried to gather himself. He began speaking about hope and conquering death. But the words themselves seemed absurd. Death was all around him, pervading his family business in a way the 120-year-old funeral home had never experienced, even through the casualties of World War I and the 1918 flu, the soldiers of World War II and the civilians of 9/11. Death had become an all-encompassing, ever-present specter, overflowing inside his chapels, overtaking his embalming room, winding through his hallways. The virus was even threatening the funeral home itself, infecting his staff, pushing them to their physical and emotional limits, and testing his own faith that he could marshal the fourth-generation business entrusted to him. Patrick began reading a traditional Catholic funeral prayer, one he’s recited countless times in his 25-year career.
God of all consolation
Open our hearts to your word
So that, listening to it, we may comfort one another
Finding light in time of darkness
And faith in time of doubt.
This time, the lines seemed new and different. “We’d all been cast into this darkness,” he told me. “It wasn’t just this family in front of me. I felt like I was praying for all of us.” After the funeral, he left the chapel and drove to his main Queens office, where he began searching for a refrigerated container that could hold dozens more bodies that he knew were coming.Patrick Kearns is a calming presence in the darkness. I loved the opening sentence of this section, particularly the phrase “in the darkness,” which gives it a weight suited to the story’s subject. Was this — or something like it — always how you wanted to open the crucial second section, or did it change during writing? It was in there almost from the beginning. I was trying to play off of the reference to the prayer Patrick reads in the earlier section — “Finding light in time of darkness” — and his quote, “We’d all been cast into this darkness.” If I can pull it off, I like to include allusions to earlier descriptions or scenes. But it’s one of the more difficult things to get right. He’s worked half his life at the funeral home. As a kid, he made house calls with his father and worked the door during services as grieving families solemnly filed past. He grew up in the business, but he also seems naturally wired for the job, perfectly suited to stare death in the face while making sure the flower arrangements look nice and the paperwork is properly filled out. He’s not afraid to say he genuinely wants to make people happy. “I have a strong desire to please,” he says.
Patrick is thin and wiry with a head of bushy, sandy-silver hair combed to the side. He tucks his tie into his white button-up shirt so it doesn’t get caught on a stretcher or become an overhanging nuisance during embalming. This is a telling detail about Patrick’s experience and thoughtfulness … it reminded me, maybe weirdly, of the (apocryphal?) story that Elvis Presley wore his belt buckle to the side so not to scratch his guitar. How did you get it? The first night I called Patrick, he told me he was embalming a body as we spoke, which immediately struck me as something I wanted to make sure to include. I asked him to describe what he was wearing, and he told me about tucking in his tie. When I met him in person, I saw the tucked-in tie for myself and asked him about it again. I often struggle with physical descriptions of people. For me, it’s one of the hardest details to get right, to know what to use to accurately paint a portrait of someone with just a few words, and what to discard. The tie, thankfully, was a relatively easy and obvious one to include. He bounds up stairs from the basement office toward his casket-filled garage, seeming two decades from his age of 51. Patrick and Paul are the funeral home’s unshakable center and have known each other since they were teenagers. They stand at a table in the middle of their office plotting the day’s funerals, asking about the embalming status of decedents and scheduling runs to hospitals and crematories. They keep track of every body that comes in on a white two-sided poster board, along with vital information for each. In pre-pandemic times, they used just one board. Now they use five. Another telling detail. Did Patrick or Paul point out the need for more poster board, or did you have to ask about it? When I visited the funeral home, I sat in the main office for hours and just watched the staffers go about their day. Both Patrick and Paul showed me the poster boards. They were great in taking the initiative to show me the ways their business had changed in just a matter of weeks. Initially, they had been marking each COVID-19 case with a red C, but they soon got so many that they stopped.
Nearby sits a six-inch stack of papers atop a black filing cabinet. It’s a copy of every funeral request they’ve been unable to fulfill since mid-March, a mundane physical manifestation of the crisis. “It’s like it has its own presence now,” Paul says. “When I look at it, I get this bad feeling. These are all the families that you didn’t get to.” This is a striking, sad quote. How much time did you spend interviewing Paul and the other characters in your story? Was it difficult to get them to open up? I spent the most time talking with Patrick by far, interviewing him at length more than a dozen times. For Paul, I only interviewed him on a couple of occasions. I wish I could say I had some life-shattering question that elicited this quote, but I think it came about for a number of reasons that had little to do with me. The first time I interviewed him, he was driving to a funeral in New Jersey, and he had nothing to do but talk to me about everything he’d been experiencing. I don’t think he’d talked much about the crisis and seemed relieved in some ways to recount what he’d seen. And there were long stretches where I just let him talk. I think journalists can sometimes get in the way during an interview, me included. Humans naturally want to fill in silence that occurs in conversation. But the best quotes sometimes appear when you let your interview subject fill that silence instead.
Two months earlier, the funeral home had been a bit slower than usual. In late February, Paul met with a woman whose husband was dying. He shook her hand and they discussed her husband’s funeral arrangements. She seemed in fine health. A couple of weeks later, on March 18, the new widow passed away and another funeral director, Yrcania Moncrieffe, retrieved her body. The woman was the first confirmed coronavirus patient to come into their care, though the funeral directors believe her husband also likely died from the virus. That day, Paul’s wife, Patrick’s sister Meg, came down with a fever and tested positive for COVID-19. Paul became sick three days later and quarantined at home for two weeks. Patrick began to view the virus as a possible threat to the business itself. He told another of his funeral directors who worked in a separate location to stay put. “If you’re the designated survivor, you have to take over if something happens to us here,” Patrick told him. He recorded a video of himself opening the funeral home’s safe and texted it to his son, so he’d know the combination if something happened to him. “Just in case,” he wrote.Patrick Kearns is the family’s fourth generation to own and operate the Leo F. Kearns Funeral Homes. His great-grandparents Thomas and Mary opened their first location in Brooklyn in 1900. His great-uncle Leo expanded the business and moved it to Queens in the ’20s, then led it through the Great Depression. His father, also named Thomas, ran it in the 1960s when the practice of caring for the dead became a full-fledged industry, offering top-of-the-line steel caskets and mass-produced urns. The business now includes three Queens funeral homes and one in Long Island, performing about 450 services in a normal year. It can be tricky sometimes when describing history, especially knowing how much or how little to include. How much work did you put into this specific paragraph? This paragraph for me was fairly easy only because I’d written about the funeral home industry before. The general contours of its history were still burrowed away in my head. I just had to unearth them.
Patrick Kearns started working for his dad in the early ’90s. Years earlier, as an elementary and middle school student, he says he got into a fair amount of trouble and felt he was disappointing his father. “I spent a lot of years trying to make up for that,” he says. After graduating with a fine arts degree, Patrick wanted to settle down and start a family. He’d seen the funeral home help his parents raise eight children and figured that might be a sensible path for him too. When Thomas retired in the 2000s, Patrick took over. It pleased his dad.
The first night we talked was April 6. Patrick was embalming a body when I called. You’re sparing in mentions of yourself in the story, but do so a few times. Why did you choose to here? I wanted the reader to get a brief sense of my role. I personally like when the writer gently appears in a story like this, if only to add a bit of transparency to it. I also, again, thought it was striking that Patrick was embalming as he talked to me. In my mind, it showed not only the long hours he works, but that he could perform something like an embalming — injecting a corpse with fluids to keep it preserved — while holding a perfectly normal conversation. So this was more about the scene than my role, but I felt like I needed to briefly say we were having a conversation over the phone to tell it. He wasn’t sure if the person had died of COVID-19, but he treats every body as if it’s infected. Before the pandemic, he would embalm the same way his great-uncle Leo did: in his suit, sleeves rolled up, in a pair of gloves. But he started working in full personal protective equipment once he began taking in COVID-19 cases. That evening, he told me as he worked, he had 40 bodies in his care. He normally has two or three.
The volume of calls he’d received over the last two weeks was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. At first, about 25 bodies a week were coming in. At that rate, or even slightly higher, Patrick thought he could manage. He turned a storage room into an overflow space with racks for caskets and cremation containers and converted one of his chapels into a room for dressing bodies. But in the first four days of April, he held 30 funerals and was overwhelmed. He had to start saying no. His business just wasn’t built to do this many. “We tried to put the brakes on things,” he says. “But families still kept calling.”
Many funeral homes stopped holding services, but Patrick kept them with restrictions in place: no more than 10 people, everyone in masks, social distancing required. For those not attending, he set up Zoom calls. “There’s an indirect risk we have to take,” he says. So many COVID-19 patients died alone in nursing homes or in hospitals on ventilators, the families often barred from caring for them, especially in their final moments. Patrick felt he had to give them one last chance to say goodbye. “You can’t shut your door,” he says. One thing that jumped out about this story was that there seemed to be a perfect quote to accompany many of the details. From a technical perspective, how did you record your interviews, and how did you transcribe and organize them? When feasible, I like to record interviews and transcribe them so I know my quotes are 100% accurate and I’m capturing the true speaking manner of the people I’m interviewing. But for this story, I realized that the number of interviews would make recording and transcribing everything borderline impossible from a time perspective. So one thing I made sure to do was clean up my interview notes immediately after I hung up, when the interview was still fresh, something I’ve always tried to do for stories but generally failed. That helped me capture a number of these quotes. Then, as I was writing, I went through all of the interviews, which were in one giant document, and highlighted what I thought were the strongest bites. I then brought all those quotes into another document where I was actually writing the story and trimmed from there. Hopefully, the best quotes survived.
Patrick had also learned from the New York City medical examiner’s office that bodies would be sent to a potter’s field on Hart Island if they weren’t claimed after six days. It bothered him that families might have their loved one buried in a mass grave because he didn’t have anywhere to store them, so he bought a $15,000 shipping container, which could hold 36 at a time, doubling his capacity. When Patrick inquired about it, the vendor told him he had to buy it outright. No one would rent it again after knowing what Patrick was going to do with it. This detail leaps out. Similar to the question about the poster boards: Did Patrick offer this outright or did you have to nudge him on the topic? I, again, was lucky in that Patrick was very open. He freely told me the story about the vendor, but I think I did nudge him about the cost. He had no issues giving me the price tag.
On Wednesday, April 8, the funeral home held six funerals. The next day, they’d perform five. Friday: five. Saturday: three. We talked late that evening. Patrick was going through the messages he’d received, trying to figure out which families needed the most help. He talked to family members who’d called 30 funeral homes. Sometimes, the person calling didn’t even realize which one they were contacting until someone picked up. “It’s taken a physical and emotional toll,” he says. “And the thought of doing this for another month…” He didn’t finish. He seemed a bit unsure about where all this was heading, and whether he was making the right moves. A couple of days later, he found a crematory in Schenectady, New York, where he could start transferring multiple bodies. The refrigerated container was supposed to arrive soon. That day, he received 200 more messages from families. He was trying to get to all of them, but it was impossible. “There’s just no way that we can help everyone,” he says. A recent survey shows that some journalists are emotionally affected by the stories they cover during the pandemic. Was this a difficult story to cover in that respect? If so, did you do anything to manage your emotions? I can write and report on a story like this and generally keep my emotions in check. But I do remember sometimes feeling shaken after talking with Patrick. We often spoke late at night, when he was still at the office, about the enormity and gravity of what his funeral home was experiencing, and there was something about those late-night conversations themselves that added a certain element of grief and darkness to it all. I often discussed those conversations with my wife, part of my own way of dealing with it. Those overly emotional moments were fleeting, but not altogether absent. To write a piece like this, I think you have to maintain some sort of emotional connection with the story without letting it get the best of you. If there’s no connection at all, the whole thing will come out flat.
Paul Kearns-Stanley has worked at the funeral home since 1990, even longer than Patrick. He majored in English literature at the University of Delaware, never considering funeral service as a career option. When he graduated, though, he had no job, so his father-in-law offered him a spot in the family business. “He brings me in the first day of work. He says to me, ‘People think in funeral service, you wear a white shirt, sit behind a desk, tell people what to do, and fill out papers the whole day. That’s not what it is at all. You have to roll up your sleeves and do the work.’” I love this, both as a quick introduction to Paul and as a brusque lesson for the reader about the funeral-service business. Was it always included at this point of the story? I toyed with taking this out, and in one of the edited versions I removed it for space. But I always really liked this section because it struck me as a nice insight into Paul’s introduction to the business. So I added it back in and am happy it stayed.
Doing the work meant vacuuming, loading bodies on stretchers, greeting grieving families at the door. And he liked it. He worked his way up, becoming the funeral home’s number two. Like Patrick, he’s understated. Soft-spoken. Thoughtful. But where Patrick is more gregarious, Paul is reserved. Staffers say he has the office’s poker face. He’s a full head taller than Patrick and partial to bow ties and dark pinstripe suits, even in the middle of a pandemic. In these circumstances, Paul says, there’s no way to perform funerals the way they should be done. “They’re stunted,” he says. “I walk away from funerals now and say, That really sucked. That was not a good funeral.”
While he’s been in the business 30 years, he can check off the number of firsts that he’s experienced just in the last two months. This sentence tells the reader he or she will see how unusual our current moment is from Paul’s perspective. Do you remember how you hit on it as a way to introduce this paragraph? This really came from Paul. He basically said: I can check off the number of firsts I’ve experienced recently. I think I asked him to name them, and he just listed them off. So, this is more a paraphrase of Paul’s words than anything I came up with on my own. He’s buried four people in one day. He’s said, “I can’t help you right now.” He’s made people cry. And the first time he’s ever truly been bothered by something occurred in April, when he visited Elmhurst Hospital to retrieve a body from one of the three trailers sitting outside the morgue’s receiving area. “I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Paul said. “There was no rhyme or reason to how the bodies were placed. They were on the floors. There was a head in this direction, one in that direction, at all different angles. No shelving. It was just horrific.” He asked how many people were inside. The attendant told him 67. In normal times, there are six. Paul watched as the morgue attendant held onto the trailer’s sides as he stepped over bodies looking for name tags. He was afraid he was going to fall and hurt himself. There was no place to walk. “There’s no one to blame. It caught everyone completely off guard. The bodies just came so fast,” Paul told me.
The two funeral home workers who saw the worst of it were Jose Soto, 30, and Francisco James, 29. They were tasked with making runs to the hospital morgues around the city. Jose is a jokester, a talker, and he’ll do anything the funeral home asks him, even if he’s never done it before. He dresses bodies. He loads them into cremation containers. He builds shelving. He swats flies—a funeral home menace—and tapes them onto a white sheet of paper to show his kill rate. (Five one day in mid-May.) How did you get this detail? And did you see the paper? When I visited the funeral home, a fly began buzzing around the main office. Paul pointed out that flies are a natural enemy inside a funeral home because of the rather nasty things they can do to the deceased. Jose Soto took it upon himself to hunt it down, and at the end of the day, he taped several others he’d swatted onto a sheet of paper to show me and the rest of the staff his bug-killing proficiency. Ha! James, known as Frankie, is a newly licensed funeral director. He started on February 25, just before the pandemic engulfed the city.
As soon as the funeral home is authorized to retrieve a body, the two head out, Jose wearing a black heavy coat with cargo pockets—his “COVID jacket”—and Frankie in a black Versace jacket with a gold logo that, from a distance, looks like an official seal, as if he’s with the state health department. Some of the morgue attendants have sat up a bit straighter seeing him from a distance. When they arrive, they pull their van into the back of the morgue, head into one of the refrigerated trailers, identify the correct body, place it on the stretcher, buckle it in, and load it into their vehicle.
As the epidemic grew, the hospital’s morgues turned nightmarish. Many hospitals began bringing in large refrigerated trucks but didn’t have shelving or a system in place at first. Before lighting was installed, Frankie and Jose often used their phones as flashlights to identify bodies in the darkened trailers. Sometimes it took them 20 minutes to locate the right one because the ID tag had ripped off and they’d have to open up a body bag to make a positive identification from the person’s wristband or toe tag. They didn’t know if they could contract COVID-19 from the corpses, so they always wore full PPE.
Out of all the morgues they visited, the one at Brookdale University Hospital was one of the most disturbing. On April 3, Frankie recorded a video inside one of Brookdale’s trailers. A man can be seen lying outside of his body bag. Others appear piled on top of each other. It’s human chaos. “Right as soon as you opened the door, there were just a pile of bodies you had to climb over to get into the truck,” Frankie tells me. “These body bags were very cheap. When you went to move the zipper, the bag just ripped. You saw people’s arms hanging out, legs hanging out. A guy was naked, out of the bag.” They eventually found who they were looking for. She was right in front, underneath one other, face down. Frankie saw a couple footprints on the back of the body bag.
After hearing about the situation at Brookdale, Patrick Kearns spoke to the New York State Funeral Directors Association, which asked the funeral home staff to record what they were seeing. The association says it received similar calls about the city’s makeshift morgues and alerted the governor’s office. “Nobody really thinks of us on the front lines,” Frankie says. “You hear about firefighters, doctors, but you never see, ‘Thank you, funeral directors’ We’re the last of the first responders.” Another particularly striking quote. What purpose did you want it to serve here? When Frankie told me this, I immediately thought: This is the entire point of the story. I worked on this piece, framed with help from VF editor Eric Bates, from the idea that funeral home workers are in many ways the forgotten men and women in all of this. The focus in the media, naturally, is on those trying to preserve life, the doctors and nurses. That attention is absolutely justified. But those dealing with the other side of this crisis often don’t get the same attention. And I think that’s because we as a society often push aside death in its many forms, which is exactly why I’m interested in telling these stories.
In the first 12 days of April, the Kearns funeral homes performed 100 funerals. They’d taken in around 10 bodies daily, including one from their very block, a woman who died at home, later listed as probable COVID-19. Patrick, about to go home for dinner when he got the call, instead walked over to say they’d do the removal. By this time, the sheer numbers had begun to scare him. “They’re coming in quicker than they’re going out,” he said. “Even for people used to dealing with death, this is completely different.” He was having trouble sleeping. He’d helped families through difficult situations before: mothers who’d lost children, people killed in horrific accidents. But he always knew there’d be an end. He could perform the service, go home, have dinner, and feel like he helped somebody. “If there was a finite amount, like you knew there was a catastrophe, but it was a finite amount, I think it would be easier,” he said. “But now, when you’ve helped somebody, there’s always someone else. And for every person you’ve helped, there’s 10 you can’t.”
The following day, the refrigerated container arrived. Patrick parked it in an alley, a white barrier blocking it from view, its low hum a new, constant presence inside the funeral home’s garage. Patrick’s mood soon picked up, knowing he was expanding his capacity and could stop saying no so often. He also learned that his older brother Thomas planned to head down from Vermont to help drive bodies to the crematory. But around the same time, he started getting more concerned for his staff, and for his physical well-being, and questioned whether they could keep this pace up. He began wondering whether he and possibly his employees had already been infected and recovered, remembering one cold, rainy night in March when he experienced chills and severe back pain. He realized he needed to take care of himself. He was wearing down. Sometimes it’s tough to know where to put something like this, which is essentially a flashback to March. How did you decide to put it here? The story, generally, is chronological. I began with a funeral scene in early April, but I largely tell the story linearly from late March to the end of May. This is something I knew I wanted to briefly mention within that timeline because it would ultimately have some meaning later. Chronologically in my reporting, this is when he mentioned it to me, so that’s why I included it here.
A week later, Patrick fell inside the refrigerated unit as he was standing on one of the shelves. He stepped down but misjudged the height, falling backward and hitting his head on the opposite shelf. He saw a flash of white light but didn’t lose consciousness. Afterward, he drove to one of his funeral homes and then a cemetery before he realized he might have a concussion. At the cemetery, he was worried the family would ask him to pray at the grave site. Instead, they all stayed in their cars and watched the burial from afar. On the way to another cemetery, Patrick realized he shouldn’t be driving. He couldn’t form full sentences, and when he got out, he couldn’t walk without stumbling. His wife drove him home. It was the first day he’d had off in weeks.Yrcania Moncrieffe is an outspoken contrast to Patrick and Paul’s understatedness. She has an ear-to-ear smile and springy ash-blonde hair she says has been coming out in clumps since the pandemic began. Around the office, she often wears dark pantsuits. She’s blunt, no-nonsense, especially when she believes others—cemeteries, hospitals, morgues—aren’t pulling their weight. “I have no chill,” she says. How deliberate were you in writing the short sketches that introduce each funeral-service employee? The details — such as Yrcania’s hair — seem carefully chosen. I was very deliberate about these sketches, especially with Yrcania. One thing I wanted to avoid, and something I was highly conscious of, was ensuring that I didn’t describe Yrcania, who is Puerto Rican and a woman of color, simply by her hair. At the same time, she talked a lot about her hair because of what the pandemic appeared to be doing to it. The stress of working through the outbreak, as well as the bands from her PPE masks, led to Yrcania experiencing some significant hair loss. She showed me a photo of a clump of hair that had come out in the shower and said she had joked with Patrick about whether the budget allowed for wigs. So I combined all these ideas into that one sentence to give this brief sketch.
Yrcania, 36, first started working part-time for Patrick in the mid-2000s before returning full-time last July. She’s Afro-Latina and bilingual, her language skills helping the funeral home serve the neighborhood’s many Spanish-speaking families. Her instinct to care for the dead came early. Yrcania’s aunt was born with a heart defect and was in and out of hospitals. The day her aunt died, Yrcania showed up at the hospital with a removal van. It was her way of saying thank you. “I was gearing myself up for that moment, to be able to offer that,” she says. “I didn’t know I was grooming myself all my life.”
During the crisis, Yrcania has been increasingly exasperated by the state of bodies coming from hospitals. Treatment for COVID-19 is highly invasive, especially for those on ventilators. A huge, rigid tube is placed inside a patient’s mouth and windpipe to keep air passages open. A Velcro strap is placed tightly around the face to secure it as two protective beige pads are placed on the cheeks. Yrcania knows all this because she sees it when she unzips the body bags. “They come to us still attached,” she says. “The tubes are being left in the patients.”
Yrcania says she doesn’t think the hospitals are taking funeral homes into consideration and are needlessly passing the risk of exposure onto them. “They throw them in a bag,” she says. “Let the funeral home deal with it.” Patrick tried to push back on the hospitals but eventually realized they’d have to remove the equipment themselves. “These doctors and nurses, it’s not like they’re sitting on their hands doing nothing,” he says. “They’re overwhelmed. And you know what? This person is now dead. And that’s my job, to take care of the dead.”
When staffers remove the tubing, they wear a shield and mask and cover the deceased’s face with a large piece of cotton. The intubation tube may contain a high viral load and takes a lot of strength to remove. “One of the scariest moments is taking this equipment out,” Yrcania says. “Imagine pulling as tightly as you can.” If a patient has an oxygen mask on for too long, it can create a sort of bedsore on the face and disfigure the mouth. The tan pads can distort the cheeks. It’s up to the funeral home to try to restore some of the damage.
Yrcania, married with two children, says she’s felt overwhelmed by the emotional strain of it all, as well as the 16-hour days that have kept her from her family. Her husband, Ian, has taken over the duties at home, caring for their infant son and five-year-old daughter, making dinner, cleaning. Yrcania has missed her son’s first steps and first words, and she barely sees her daughter. “She wakes up, she goes, ‘Hi Mommy, see you tomorrow,’ ” Yrcania says. “At six o’clock in the morning. I’m forfeiting my family for strangers. But right now, we’re in a pandemic. This is nonnegotiable.”On April 27, the crematory in Schenectady had a minor explosion in one of its gas chambers. The funeral home was planning to perform four or five cremations there a day. As a backup, Patrick began using a crematory in Connecticut roughly the same distance away. Getting another online quickly was critical. The funeral home serves a number of Guyanese families, many of whom are Hindu and require that cremation take place as soon as possible after the service.
The person making those crematory runs was Thomas Kearns. Like his younger brother Patrick, Thomas spent much of his time at the funeral home growing up. He’d get woken up in the middle of the night and tag along with his dad to perform a home removal. He worked as an attendant during wakes. He casketed bodies. “It was just the way it was,” he says. When Thomas went to college, he figured he’d become a funeral director and assume the family business. After all, he was named for both his father and great-grandfather, who started the funeral home. It didn’t much matter what he majored in because he’d end up in mortuary school, so he studied art history and loved it. Before long, he got sidetracked working with artists. “They were expecting me to take over,” he says. “Probably one of the hardest things I did was telling my father I wasn’t going to do it.”
Even without Thomas, the Kearns funeral home is a family affair: There’s Patrick, his brother-in-law Paul, and Paul’s son Sam, who’s an administrative assistant. But over the last couple of months, Patrick’s son, a high school math and physics teacher, came in to help, as well as Paul’s college-aged daughter, Maeve, who started retrieving bodies from hospitals. When Thomas heard about his 19-year-old niece transporting corpses, he knew he had to help. He bought some plywood, constructed body boards, threw them into his truck, loaded his tools, and drove down from his home in Vermont. Before he left, he made sure his life insurance was paid up.
For weeks, Thomas woke around 4 a.m. and drove to the funeral home, where a van holding four to six bodies was waiting for him. By 4:30 a.m., he was on the road in the pitch-black, driving north on the interstate to crematories in Schenectady or Putnam, Connecticut. The solitary drive was the toughest part of his day, six hours on the road with nothing to think about other than the pandemic happening all around him. He kept his GPS on even though he’d already made the trip numerous times. He was worried he’d drive right past the exit, his mind elsewhere. How did this detail come up? I interviewed Thomas as he was in one of the funeral home vehicles, and he mentioned that he made sure to always put the GPS on when driving. I think I asked him why, because he didn’t really explain. And that’s when he said he was worried about missing the exit. I thought it was the most telling detail he gave me about his own state of mind during all this.
“Growing up being at the funeral home, if you had seven deceased people in an embalming room, it would be flooded. You couldn’t believe how busy you were. And I think during the height of the pandemic we had 70 one day. Which is just unfathomable. People everywhere. Embalming room filled. Morgue filled. One of the chapels is converted into where we’re dressing and casketing bodies,” Thomas says. “The scale of it is just unimaginable.”
In late April, stories surfaced of dozens of decomposing bodies found in trucks at a Brooklyn funeral home. The owner, Andrew Cleckley, told reporters he’d been overwhelmed by the number of bodies and had been using the trucks for overflow storage after already filling his chapel with more than 100 bodies. “There are a few others that might be in over their heads,” Patrick says. “Trust me, it’s easy to get over your head here.” While hospitals received significant attention from state and local governments throughout the crisis, funeral homes like Kearns were generally left to figure things out for themselves. “I felt on my own,” Patrick says. “The mayor’s office was completely clueless at first.”
The problems at the funeral home in Brooklyn pushed the city to become more responsive to how overwhelmed the entire funeral home industry had become. City officials didn’t want another incident of bodies decomposing in trucks. Now, they were reaching out. Do you need anything? Can we help? Weeks earlier, the medical examiner had extended the deadline to retrieve bodies from six days to 14. Now, the city said that funeral directors could send bodies back if they got overstretched. Patrick says that’s never happened before. The medical examiner also removed the deadline for sending bodies to Hart Island, placing them in long-term cold storage instead. “The city’s come around 180 degrees.”
By early May, Patrick began seeing signs of progress. The death and infection rates were trending downward. They were performing four or five funerals a day, about half as many as in early April. Around this time, Patrick learned that he had indeed contracted the virus. That rainy, cold March night when he experienced back pain was likely a mild symptom of COVID-19. He now has the antibodies. He thinks he probably got the virus from relatives of a COVID-19 patient rather than a body in the funeral home. But he’ll never really know. The placement of this detail packs a punch, sneaking up after you introduce his illness earlier. Why did you choose to reveal Patrick’s COVID results at this point in the story? This again generally follows the chronology. When we spoke in May, he told me he’d finally been tested and discovered he’d been infected. I think it works here because of the brief mention of that cold rainy night in March. But that earlier reference was deliberate. I was hoping for a payoff here.
The funeral home’s main office is located in a squat brown-brick building on a street in South Richmond Hill that’s half residential, half commercial. On a mid-May morning, staffers were directing a funeral in a chapel that had been split in half—one part used for viewings, the other for staff to prepare bodies. There, Jose Soto was dressing the body of a man who had died on his 73rd birthday. He was mostly bald with red splotches on the top of his head. On the right side of his face was a blackish bruise mark. His hospital wristband was still attached. “He needs his makeup done,” Jose said.
Next to him was a larger man in his 20s with a tattoo on his right biceps that had a woman’s name in script above a red heart. Nearby, an elderly woman dressed in a purple blouse and floral scarf was already in her casket. Inside was a photo of her holding yellow flowers. An older woman with gray streaks through her black hair was lying on a stretcher next to an overweight woman. Three of the five bodies here were probable COVID-19 cases, and a fourth, the man Jose was dressing, was first believed to have had COVID-19 and put on a ventilator but later tested negative. Jose dressed him in a white T-shirt and a pair of black suit pants. In the garage, he then helped put several other bodies inside cardboard containers, “HANDLE WITH CARE” printed in green on the side of each one. He checked one of the bodies for a pacemaker, which can explode inside a crematory. Nothing. Jose zipped up the body bag and closed the container’s cardboard lid. Several staffers helped place the box on a dolly and loaded it into a van. Patrick shut the doors. The bodies would be driven to Connecticut tomorrow.
That afternoon Yrcania told me about her friend’s father, who she called Papito, and who had died of COVID-19 a few weeks earlier. Yrcania had vacationed with him. Some funeral directors might not want to arrange a funeral for someone they knew. But she did. Yrcania embalmed him and dressed him in a gray suit with a coral necktie. It was the same suit she remembers Papito wearing when he walked his daughter down the aisle. “I cried a lot,” Yrcania says. “What got me was scooping him up, that I had him in my hands. It broke my heart that he was in a state where I could lift him.”
That afternoon, Yrcania finished dressing the man who died on his birthday. She placed him in a dark suit jacket and a navy tie, loosely tying it around her neck first to get the knot right. Nearby, Jose was shaving the man with the heart tattoo. The sun began setting, splashing through the pinkish stained glass windows and white curtains. Yrcania put cover-up cream on the man she was prepping and pointed out what looked like a bedsore underneath his chin, likely an injury from the ventilator that doctors initially put him on. She lightly shaved the gray hair on the side of his head. “That’s much better,” she said. She thought again of her friend’s father whom she’d prepared. “I enjoyed getting him ready. I really enjoyed it,” she said. “Getting him all dressed up. I like getting them ready to go wherever they’re going. Because we are the last caregiver.” This is a deeply intimate scene. Was there any resistance trying to get access to this part of the process? What do you remember most vividly about reporting it? When I visited the funeral home, I had no idea how much access they would give me. I thought they might restrict where I could go and what I could see. But at one point, Patrick got busy, so I just started roaming around on my own and no one stopped me. In fact, Jose Soto at one point brought me into the room where they were preparing bodies to show me how he does it. In some ways, I think the workers wanted me to see what they do, and ultimately they allowed me full access throughout the funeral home. In an earlier draft, I included the identity of the man they were dressing. I tracked down his family to see if they were ok with me identifying him in the story, but they declined. So I made sure to write about him in a general way without anything that could positively ID him.
For now, the place this man was going was on the other side of the divider for tomorrow’s service, his face no longer showing any signs of bruising, no apparent marks from the ventilator. He was trimmed and dressed in his finest dark suit. The staff hung a gold and silver crucifix on the inside of the open section of his casket and placed a brown kneeler in front for prayers. He was ready for the morning viewing.On May 17 in the early evening, Patrick had left work by 6:30 p.m., the earliest he’d gotten out of the office in weeks. At home, he received two more calls. Two more families who needed help. But things were slowing down enough for him to start thinking about what he’d just been through. That first COVID-19 case back on March 18 was the 106th body the funeral home had taken in this year. By the end of May, the yearly count was 475, more than all the services they’d performed in 2019. From mid-March to the end of May, the funeral home had received 1,370 calls from families requesting services and carried out 369 funerals. “There was a small window to make the right decisions,” Patrick told me. “I feel very good about what we’ve been able to accomplish.” The funeral home was now in a position to perform a disinterment from the mass burials on Hart Island. The death was from March, one of the hundreds of calls lost in the sheer volume and somewhere deep in the stack of papers sitting on his filing cabinet. It was one of the calls that had haunted him.
When we talked, Patrick was sitting outside near a gas firepit, trying to relax. “It’s weird to sit idle and not worry,” he said. The night before, he went into the office by himself even though he didn’t need to, the refrigerated container kicking on and off, keeping dozens of bodies in his care preserved. For now, Patrick says he’ll keep it, as well as the van he bought for removals and crematory trips. He’s bracing for a resurgence in the fall.
Patrick says one of the more difficult things in all this was that his father, Thomas, in his early 80s, was on the sidelines during the biggest crisis the industry had ever seen. “I called Pat and said, I still have my license. I could direct funerals,” Thomas says. “But they knew better than I did.” Patrick realized he couldn’t allow his dad to be exposed to the virus, so Thomas stayed put. But Patrick still felt his dad’s presence around the funeral home. Decades ago, Thomas had relocated their main office to their current building, one that can also hold funerals upstairs, and turned part of the driveway into a garage where they now hold caskets and moving vans. Patrick says his dad’s physical restructuring of the business allowed him to better manage the crisis. He told his father: You did help. You are helping.
I spoke with Patrick more than a dozen times beginning in early April. I often started our conversations with a simple: So, how are things going? He’d routinely answer: “Uhhhh, good! Good.” Even though things were rarely good, especially then. During one of our last conversations in May, he said that when he was having trouble sleeping, he was also experiencing what he called heart flurries, as if his heart was threatening to burst out of his chest any time he lay down. He got a prescription for Xanax. It helped him rest, and leveled him out emotionally, something he desperately needed.
“I no longer found myself in the corner of my office crying,” he said. I asked him if he meant that, whether he’d really been crying in his office. “Absolutely,” he said. “Every morning in the shower. Periodically in my office.” It wasn’t the deaths that triggered it, he said. It was the opposite. It was when he thought of his brother driving down from Vermont. It was the time his college friend sent him money to buy lunch for his staff. It was the time when the funeral home didn’t have enough sheets for all the bodies and his wife mentioned it to a neighbor and before long, half-a-dozen people were stopping by bringing them linens. It was the people taking care of them. Effective endings can be a challenge, especially in long, complex narratives like this. In yours, you stay with Patrick as the central voice of the funeral home workers, but then shift your lens — his lens, really — to people outside the funeral home who are supporting him and his staff. How did you land on this as the final graf? And what do you remember about the writing of it? My initial headline for the piece was The Last Caregivers, based on a quote from Yrcania. This kicker was initially meant to reflect that. If I can do it, I like to come full circle in pieces like these, and I thought it would be a nice ending note. The headline was ultimately changed in the editing process but we kept the kicker. But I think it still works. It’s the idea that what truly moved Patrick were all the people taking care of him and his staff. They were taking care of the caregivers.
Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career. He writes fiction and poetry when he’s not chasing the news.