Rubber Suits And Glass Barriers: How Funeral Homes Are Doing This Essential Work

Drive in funeral service
Funeral service cars leave the Kolssak funeral home in Wheeling, Ill., to start a drive-in funeral amid coronavirus pandemic on April 14. Funeral homes across the state are facing pressure to keep their staff safe while honoring an increasing number of deceased. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
Drive in funeral service
Funeral service cars leave the Kolssak funeral home in Wheeling, Ill., to start a drive-in funeral amid coronavirus pandemic on April 14. Funeral homes across the state are facing pressure to keep their staff safe while honoring an increasing number of deceased. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Rubber Suits And Glass Barriers: How Funeral Homes Are Doing This Essential Work

Funeral director Spencer Leak Jr. said he’s tired of hearing about death. The previous day was a tough one.

“We were planning for a loved one’s service. It was supposed to be tomorrow. The family called me and canceled the service because the grandmother died of COVID-19 and the family and I just started crying on the phone together,” said Leak of the family-owned Leak & Sons Funeral Homes.

He’s not sure of the number of coronavirus bodies the funeral home has had since the pandemic began. He stopped counting at 30.

It’s tough to mourn a loved one during the pandemic. In Illinois, Gov. JB Pritzker has limited gatherings at funerals to just 10 people. But it’s not just families having a hard time. Funeral directors must balance the pressures of memorializing those lost to COVID-19 with taking care of their employees who are essential workers. They, too, are on the front lines and risk exposing themselves to the virus.

Funeral director Spencer Leak Jr. of Leak & Sons
Funeral director Spencer Leak Jr. of Leak & Sons, which serves a primarily black clientele. In Chicago, 55% of the people who’ve died from COVID-19 were black. Courtesy of Leak & Sons Funeral Homes

Leak & Sons serves a primarily black clientele with two locations, one at 79th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago and the other in south suburban Country Club Hills. Black people make up a disproportionate share of Chicago’s COVID-19 deaths. As of last Saturday, 55% of the people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Chicago were black — that’s nearly double their percentage of the city’s population.

At Leak & Sons, all employees wear masks. Embalmers put on rubber suits. Glass partitions are at the front desk. Limo drivers have acted as security to keep the 10-person order in effect. As an acknowledgment, Leak said he’s giving employees a little extra in their paychecks.

As much as Leak encourages families to make arrangements over the phone, it’s tough. Some details have to be handled in person — like picking out caskets, completing mountains of paperwork and dropping off clothes for the deceased. It’s not like ordering groceries or clothes, he said.

Still that creates problems at the funeral home.

“Some families come in not even knowing that their loved one tested positive for COVID. The family should be told by some higher power than me that you can’t make arrangements yet. The remains need to go to the county morgue or something until you’re out of quarantine,” Leak said.

Another family-owned funeral home agrees.

An Aretha Franklin gospel song hums in the background at Smith & Thomas Funeral Home. The family has three locations — two on Chicago’s West Side and one in Maywood. To protect employees and family members walking through the doors, every single deceased body picked up is treated as a COVID-19 case.

“We put on booties. We put on plastic aprons over the gowns. We put on our masks. We put on our face shields. We put on face coverings. We put on two pairs of gloves,” said funeral director Ilene Johnson. “We look like little Martians going into someone’s house.”

Her concern is if someone dies at home, the staff may not know if the person died of COVID-19 based on the death certificate. This is the case if they had underlying health issues, like diabetes or a heart condition, and were under a doctor’s care.

Smith & Thomas Funeral Home
From left, funeral directors Cathlene Johnson, Mary Smith (owner) and Ilene Johnson of Smith & Thomas Funeral Home. Courtesy of Smith & Thomas Funeral Home

As a precaution, embalmers work late on Sunday nights when no one is at the funeral home. Embalming is mandatory, even if a family is waiting for cremation. Johnson said they must embalm first to get rid of coronavirus in air passages and the lungs.

“We’re not really afraid of a body that’s been embalmed. We’re really afraid of the people that come with the body,” Johnson said. “These bodies that die at home probably need to go to the medical examiner first. These are people that probably need to be tested, and then they can be released to the funeral home. Knowing whether a body is positive or not provides a lot of relief to a lot of people — one, the people they lived with, and two, us.”

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said it only examines cases under its jurisdiction — and that does not include people who die of natural causes at home.

Over in Elgin, the Symonds-Madison Funeral Home questioned whether they had enough personal protective equipment or PPE. Joy and Dan Symonds are the owners.

“Maybe in the last couple of weeks I was a little frustrated in that I felt there should’ve been more guidance for funeral providers about where to get PPE because, as a small business owner, I felt like we were on our own out here to figure this out,” Joy Symonds said. “We are declared essential workers, but no one was telling us where to get gear to protect ourselves.”

That’s been a concern statewide, said Greg Henderson, president of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association and owner of a funeral home in downstate Pekin, a few miles south of Peoria.

“Going forward, they’re going to have to look at this and learn a lesson,” Henderson said. “Everybody’s going to have to have a supply in case something like this would happen again.”

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her at @natalieymoore.