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Funeral Director Strains To Keep Up With Pandemic Causalities


More than 60,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. That is tens of thousands of families figuring out how to grieve while social distancing and tens of thousands of funerals that have fundamentally changed.

Pat Marmo is a funeral director in New York City who has been coping with this crisis every single day. He joined us from his car earlier this week. It had been a busy morning. He had already done three funerals.

Can you describe what your job has been like this past month?

PAT MARMO: My job has been so desensitized in comparison to the way it was before. And what I mean by that is that we're just trying to get people's loved ones to their final disposition minus the ceremonies and the tributes. And we're just doing logistical - move the person from a hospital; get the person to a crematory; get the person to a cemetery. It's become where you don't take the time that we normally would with a family.

MARTIN: That must be hard, as well, because that - as you mentioned, there's so much more to being a funeral director than the logistics. Right? I mean...

MARMO: So much more.

MARTIN: You are counselors. You are there to receive people's grief. And you're saying you just can't do that right now.

MARMO: It's so hard because I could be speaking to a family about their current situation, and my mind is on the other family I just met. And I didn't have a chance to update my notes, so I'm sitting there going - I have to make sure I update notes on the previous family that just left my office. So I'm really distracted. I know a lot of other funeral professionals in the city are experiencing the same thing. There's just so much details when it comes to arranging a funeral that it's so easy to make a mistake.

MARTIN: What kind of questions are you hearing from families?

MARMO: The big misconception with the public is they think that they have to cremate.

MARTIN: Because of the virus?

MARMO: Yeah. I'll get phone calls from families - well, I know that you can't do a funeral. Well, we just want to arrange a cremation. I'm like no, no, no - you're mistaken. You have a right of doing a burial or a cremation. Some funeral homes may have policies in regards to COVID cases. We try to limit time, and we definitely limit people that come to our funeral home because my staff is dealing with this and they're overwhelmed. I had one person quit on me just about 20 minutes before you guys called.

MARTIN: Just because it's too much?

MARMO: Too much, too much.


MARMO: She just couldn't handle it. And I'm trying to, like, go in there with optimism. We're going to beat this virus. We're going to get people taken care of. I'm trying to build morale - trying to do what I can to keep my staff mentally in this.

MARTIN: How are you managing it? It's a lot of pressure on you.

MARMO: It's a lot. It's a lot. My days are just doing funeral work. That's all I do. I start extremely early 'cause I make - I return phone calls at 6:00 a.m. I tell families that want new services that the only time I can speak to you is either after 9:00 p.m. or around 6:00 a.m. And I'll call you around those times if it's OK - because I really am - like, other funeral directors are trying to do the same. We're trying to really take care of families as best as we could 'cause that's what we're used to doing. But we're really - it's tough to really spend time to make an arrangement. It's really tough.

MARTIN: You mentioned having to compartmentalize. Right? You've got to go through the motions. You've just got to get this done. You've got to get the next family managed. But that can have a toll if you...


MARTIN: ...Put it all inside. When do you release it?

MARMO: I can't release it right now. I'm an avid runner - I run. I tend to run 20 miles a week. I can't do that now. The only thing I have is I have this, like, visualization of crossing a finish line and things will go back to the way they were.

And I keep thinking about the day that I'm able to really get back to business as usual. And I know it's going to come, and that's what I keep thinking about. I keep thinking about it. This is what I chose to do. And I really like being a funeral director. I like taking care of people. I keep reminding myself that this is a service that we're doing for our communities and families in the neighborhoods that we have institutions in and we just got to keep it moving. We just got to help people.

MARTIN: Well, we are thinking of you and your staff and the broader New York community. And we appreciate that you took some time out of your very busy day to talk with us. Pat Marmo - he's the owner and funeral director for Daniel J. Schaefer Funeral Home and CEO of International Funeral Service of New York.

Thank you, Pat.

MARMO: Thank you. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.