Sorrow, saying goodbye: How a pandemic has affected grieving families, funeral home workers

Posted at 7:31 PM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 21:40:34-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — "My aunt was like my grandma. She was there at every sporting event I had," said Nicole Burgan who lost her beloved aunt, Gwendolyn Harp-Vaughn to COVID-19. "She was like my second mom."

Gwen was a Registered Nurse and the one in their large family who worked to keep everyone safe, but about a year into the pandemic, she and her husband Gary contracted the virus. Both were hospitalized and they were both released from the hospital, but Gwen's condition worsened. Her family took her back to the hospital where she was placed on a ventilator but, sadly, the disease had destroyed Gwen's lungs.

Nicole's beloved aunt passed away on December 4, 2020.

"I remember I was at work when I told me they were taking her off the ventilator and I broke down," said Nicole. "I didn't expect her to pass away."

Nicole said the family wasn't prepared for the cost of a funeral. They were also not prepared to have a small one, but because of restrictions and the need to keep loved ones safe, only a handful of people who loved Gwen were able to attend her funeral.

"It was just heartbreaking," Nicole said. "You have to choose who is able to see her and send her off."

Adding to the family's pain was the death of Nicole's grandmother over a week later.

"You can see mom."

At Verheyden Funeral Homes, over the last year, owner Brian Joseph and his teams have been losing sleep, working long days and into the night to schedule, clean and organize ways to allow families longer visitations to help them through the beginning of the grieving process.

One of the protocols prompted by the pandemic, the bodies of all those entrusted to them were embalmed, a process of disinfecting.

"Once they're in that preservation state, we feel pretty confident, and we're trained with universal precautions, that this COVID issue is somewhat under control once the embalming process is done."

"If we received more than four hours a night of sleep, that's probably saying a lot because it was passing this baton back and forth but what made it all possible, and I can tell you one personal experience, is when that six-year-old little boy stood up on that kneeler and said, 'I love you, poppa.' That was worth the two hours of sleep, or the three hours of sleep because that gave them closure."

What has been difficult for many people in the funeral home industry during the pandemic is not being able to calm and comfort families in ways that came so easily until a year ago, said Regina Goldsberry, a manager at Verheyden Funeral Homes.

"We can't be ourselves," Goldsberry said. "We're huggers. We're affectionate people and we can't even touch them and they can't touch us. And we're strangers to them and they now have to trust us."

Then there are the countless families they served whose loved one's passing had no connection to COVID other than the restrictions and safety guidelines they, too, had to follow.

It has been very frustrating for them, said Verheyden General Manager Adrianna Schnell. "It poses challenges for that as well to make sure that we continue to keep our guard up and follow everything as needed and continue to protect one another."

"Our goal was to lower the anxiety quickly, and the first thing they're going to know is, yes, you can see mom. Yes, you can see dad and if you have clothing, yes, we'll pick it up, just leave it outside the door," said Joseph who also praised Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan for the mass memorial over the summer on Belle Isle to honor the Detroiters who had already died from COVID-19.

"A dancer, a musician, a grandpa, a healthcare worker," Joseph recalled of the seeing photos of the lives lost. "(That) was priceless for so many."

Mass fatality response team

"The death surge created a number of capacity issues for hospital morgues," said Timothy Schramm, the owner of Howe-Peterson Funeral Homes who is also the Commander for the Michigan Mortuary Response Team (MI-MORT).

MI-MORT is a team of people from across Michigan who have, for years, trained to respond to mass fatality events. And their training scenarios have included plane crashes and a tornado wiping out a nursing home.

In April 2020, the MI-MORT team, which includes forensic dentists, forensic anthropologists, funeral home directors, and data entry specialists, was activated and deployed for the first time.

Their mission was to assist hospitals in Wayne, Washtenaw, and Monroe counties with morgue surge capacity relief from the number of deaths they were experiencing in the beginnings of the global pandemic, Schramm told 7 Action News.

And less than 24 hours after being activated, the team was up and running with their 5,000 square foot portable facility and ready to accept 165 unclaimed, COVID-positive decedents from hospitals that had run out of space to store the bodies.

The site recovery team coordinated with local hospitals to receive paperwork and identification on those who died from COVID but, because of the surge in deaths, needed temporary shelter at their portable facility.

EMS, which is part of MI-MORT, then transported the decedents to their emergency cooling units.

The team would then work on reunification of the remains with family members or guardians and help coordinate a transfer to funeral homes or crematories.

MI-MORT successfully managed over 200 cases during their 28-day deployment.

The remains of nine people whose relatives were not financially able to arrange funeral or cremation services were still cremated and entombed.