Mental Health

Forgotten on the Frontlines: A Funeral Director’s Pandemic Experience and Mental Health Journey | by Columbia Journalism | Columbia Journalism | Sep, 2021

Columbia Journalism
Brooklyn-based funeral director Myrna Morales-Fraser. Photo by Satvi Sunkara

By Satvi Sunkara

It was during her first interaction with her therapist a year ago, that Myrna Morales-Fraser could finally put a name to all that she was feeling and unable to describe since the beginning of the pandemic. Compassion fatigue. Anxiety. PTSD. A prior non-believer in therapy, she was taken aback by the accuracy of her diagnosis.

“I was just functioning,” she says. “I wasn’t living.

At 57, Morales-Fraser was working 70 to 80 hours a week as a funeral director in New York City, dealing with an overwhelming number of deaths. On an average day before Covid, her Brooklyn-based employer, International Funeral Services, saw up to 50 bodies. By March 2020, the daily count was nearing 80, and at the peak of the pandemic her funeral home would work with about 200 bodies a day, with another 200 on a waitlist.

“It came to a point where we would be surprised when the death certificate didn’t say Covid,” she explains.

A year later, as coronavirus cases surge once again in the United States, Morales-Fraser reflects on her pandemic experience. Earlier this month, a daily average of 136,558 cases were reported, with the country surpassing the 40 million mark. And while New York is currently faring better than other states, such as Tennessee and Florida, even here the daily average is over 1,000 cases.

But for those like Morales-Fraser who saw the worst of the pandemic, even the slightest increase can be very stressful. While her anxiety has improved with time, she says that the very mention of Covid-19 can still cause immediate panic. Though her profession taught her to separate herself from the grief of the job, the pandemic pushed her to new limits.

“You still do the same thing every day, but the problem is that it is now a constant,” she says. “And when you go home, it still haunts you.”

Morales-Fraser didn’t always envision herself dealing daily with death. She worked in the garment industry for 20 years, until she was laid off during the 2008 recession. “I had to recreate myself,” she says. She reluctantly took a job answering phones in a funeral home and to her surprise, found she enjoyed it. She found it extremely rewarding to help families cope with their most difficult times, “If I could support you through the worst day of your life, I would,” she says. This realization led her back to school to earn an associate’s degree in mortuary science and later received certification to be a funeral director in the state of New York.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit New York last year, Morales-Fraser didn’t have the time to process what was happening outside of work. She was on the ground, organizing funerals and online viewings, and facilitating hundreds of burials and cremations.

The hardest part, she says, was going home and being unable to kiss her wife, Patricia, for fear of exposing her to the virus.

It was so early on, that she and the rest of the staff had no concrete knowledge of whether the virus could spread from dead bodies or how to best protect themselves while on the job. They continued to work, following the evolving guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA.) And they did so in the epicenter of the outbreak.

“New York was like a guinea pig,” says Morales-Fraser, who has been a New Yorker ever since her family immigrated from Puerto Rico when she was three years old. “We taught the rest of the country what to do.”

She is not surprised that what she sees as the vital work of the funeral industry was unrecognized by the public and unsupported by the government. “We’re not normally a profession where people care much about us,” she says.

This lack of awareness angers her partner of 18 years, Patricia Fraser-Morales, who believes that funeral home workers deserve the same respect as first responders and other medical professionals. “These people that are doing this work, are human beings,” she says firmly. “They deserve to be cheered on for their bravery too.”

Instead of cheers, Myrna Morales-Fraser’s work was met with wariness and distrust. With family members being unable to see their loved ones at the hospital, she says, they had difficulty trusting that it was actually those loved ones at the funeral home once they died.

When a person dies from Covid-19, they are transferred to the hospital’s morgue and from there, a funeral home of the family’s choice. With families losing out on the opportunity to identify and mourn the deceased in hospitals and funeral homes, all they had to go off on was a wrist tag for identification during the height of the crisis. This protocol, instituted to streamline proceedings in the hospital, was effective but impersonal, making it harder for funeral home workers to help mourning families.

“We were the last hope of them knowing,” says Morales-Fraser. She would send pictures of the wrist tags to family members, hoping to ease their concerns. And when they wanted photographs of their faces, she had to reiterate that she was not authorized to do so for privacy and legal reasons.

But at the request of devastated family members, in some cases she would try to find identifiers like tattoos and birthmarks to reaffirm them, at her own risk. She recalls a particularly tough conversation with a woman who wouldn’t believe that it was her father’s body without proof. She wanted to know if there were any tattoos on the body.

The daughter’s despair made Morales-Fraser remember why she took the job in the first place: to help families on the worst day of their lives. Rather than argue with the caller about the rules, she put a big trash bag over her head (because PPE was scarce) and went to inspect the body.

Following the protocol that had become second nature to her, she disinfected the body bag and the zipper, opened the bag, sprayed the body once again before beginning her search. She soon found a tattoo on the dead man’s chest showing a young child, and she described it to his daughter on the phone.

“When I told her that, she broke down,” Morales-Fraser says. The woman cried unrestrained, expressing thanks between sobs and explaining that the tattoo was of her son, his grandson.

It was moments like these that kept Morales-Fraser going, despite the long hours and the risk to herself and her family. “That’s what got me into it,” she says, “I’m here to help them.”

But helping others all day, surrounded by hundreds of bodies, and the risk of contracting a deadly virus came at the cost of her mental health. Morales-Fraser says she didn’t believe in therapy or practicing mental wellness, until after the pandemic hit.

Patricia Fraser-Morales works with a nonprofit organization that provides services for LGBTQ+ seniors over 60 and understood her wife’s reluctance to focus on herself. She says that in professions like Myrna’s “you’re focused on making others feel better” rather than taking care of oneself.

But following months of encouragement, Myrna Morales-Fraser ultimately started therapy in May 2020. She was soon diagnosed with anxiety, compassion fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder, though at first, she didn’t like to use the term.

PTSD was something she associated only with war veterans, not women who love their jobs. “And then it was explained to me,’’ she says, “that I was at war.”

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