Final Journeys: Waves of Grief and Hope

By Charles McKenzie, November 24, 2020
Jonathan Green ’09 confronts a rising tide of tragedy.

On one end of a March 26 conference call was the health department, and on the other was Jonathan Green ’09, along with other funeral directors from Fairfield, Connecticut — a beach and college town about 60 miles north of New York City. The department was assessing their needs and conveying the latest COVID-19 statistics and projections. 

In the preceding 48 hours, Fairfield County had doubled its number of cases, hospitalizations, and, most relevant to the people on the phone, fatalities. Of all the COVID-19 deaths in the United States at that point, 2% were from their county alone. 

A frontline medic returning from World War II, Green’s grandfather had built the Jewish funeral home in 1948. Outside, the marquee lists only the first two generations of funeral directors: Abraham L. Green & Son. Inside, Green the son and Green the grandson listened to the officials’ projected numbers. Although the Greens have been surrounded by the stages of grief longer than they’ve been called the “stages of grief,” the shock and denial hit hard. 

This is just so far beyond anyone’s expectations,” said the sociology major. “We knew it was coming, yet it felt so unexpected. We just didn’t know how and when.”

In the weeks following, most of their services were livestreamed. In-person events were limited in attendance and density. The funeral home faced long delays and had some of the same issues as the medical community in procuring personal protective equipment. Green said he hardly saw his wife, Emily Rosenthal Green ’09, who works — now from home — for the Audubon Society. 

Though some members of the Green family work together, most of them did not spend much time together this past spring. The family especially grieved the loss of their beloved Passover gatherings, but they’re working together in hopes of better times to come. 

Q: At the peak, how busy was the funeral home compared to normal, and what challenges did that bring?

A: We were probably operating about three times the normal, and there were huge challenges as far as what could take place in a funeral home or a synagogue and also how many people could gather. So the actual services themselves are really restricted to graveside services when there’s a burial, and crematories are not allowing families to witness the start of the cremation. Two of the biggest challenges that we’ve found is limiting the people to just immediate family members — and sometimes not even the entire immediate family — and then also, following the burials and cremation, families typically gather and sit shiva, and that’s not a possibility right now.

Q: Most of us have been greeted by funeral directors who offer tissues, a handshake, or, in a close-knit community like yours, maybe even a shoulder to lean or cry on. Has the social distancing added challenges to consoling people?

A: It’s a difficult balance. We do our best to still take care of the family’s needs, but there is this element of personal safety that has to take priority. Because everyone’s daily lives are impacted, they’ve come to understand that this is not meant to be cruel. We’re trying our best, and this is the only way we can help them. We’re planning over the phone and using virtual signatures. Ours is a family funeral home in a very small community, so it’s more often that we know exactly who these families are. We’ve grown up with them and have known them forever, and it’s very difficult when there’s that personal connection. One of our directors, his mother passed away after she tested positive for COVID, and as painful as this was for him, it was amazing to see him enforce the same restrictions on his own family, to put safety first even above his own need for healing. So, whether it’s someone we’re just meeting or an old friend, being unable to directly comfort people, and even seeing within their own families, parents and children standing far apart from each other, it all just feels so unnatural.

Q: Like so much of the world, are you moving online?

A: Some families are hosting virtual shivas. They’re having Zoom gatherings. They’re making the best of the scenario. Probably the majority of our services lately have been livestreamed, which we coincidentally had in place already, but it’s now become quite a popular contingency plan. Before all of this, it was used only once or maybe twice a month as a reluctant option if someone from far away couldn’t get here. A lot of people felt it was a little creepy. But with everything going on in everyone’s life, they’re just hearing, “No, no, that’s not possible.” So now people are excited that they have an option to be “together.” It’s really awful how quickly people have become so accustomed to being kept apart.

Q: And how have the families taken to the restrictions that you have to impose?

A: Fortunately, everyone has been very understanding. Another issue is traditionally services would be as soon as possible, and there wouldn’t be burials on Saturday, on Shabbat. But now all of the necessary permits and authorizations and all of the routine aspects of what we do are all slowed down and restricted. Also, crematories are so overwhelmed that they’re delayed for days or even into the following week. At the height of this, the phone didn’t stop. We would have more new calls coming in than services taking place. It was hard to comprehend that this was all one single community going through this, and that we were only one funeral home in town. It was just horrible to extrapolate what was going on.

Q: How has the workload affected the work/life balance of you and your colleagues?

A: Ours is a small, family-owned firm, so normally we work our regular full days, and then we’re also on call at night and on weekends, but I usually have hobbies to refresh me. Lately, they’ve been home improvement projects or doing some gardening with my wife. But when our community was hit, there wasn’t time for that. We put in much longer hours, seven-day weeks. The extent of self-care was going home to finally eat for the first time in the day, falling asleep, showering, and going back to work — sometimes before she’d woken up. Unfortunately, my wife had to manage our whole lives on her own — everything in our daily lives — all while still managing her own job full time. It was bad. Then one of our directors was quarantined starting in March, and she did come down with COVID. That was 25 percent of our licensed staff. Fortunately, she has since recovered. She’s fine.

Q: Did that add a new, even more personal dimension to the pandemic?

A: Our first concern was making sure she was okay. We wanted her home, resting and safe, but then we also needed to protect ourselves, and we have families at home who are sometimes at higher risk that we need to protect.

Q: As a third-generation funeral director, have you or your family seen anything like this pandemic?

A: That’s actually something I’ve discussed with my father and other colleagues who’ve been around. This is unlike anything else. There may have been new precautions to take for your own personal safety, but as for the loss of life, this is an unprecedented increase, at least in our lifetimes. This is just unbelievable. I don’t know how else to describe it.

Q: Has it made you question your own decision to take on the family business?

A: No, not at all. This is definitely the first time there has been danger, but I’ve never once questioned coming to work. I’ve never actually considered whether or not this was an option. This is just what I do. This is why I’m here. And this is just a new challenge. It’s been all about trying to do our best and finding solutions. For every challenge that comes in, we’ve come up with contingencies and new ways to be as effective as possible for these families. Safety’s our first priority, followed by still offering compassion through all of us.

Q: Have you been able to have a big family dinner, or is there still a regularly scheduled tradition that happens?

A: No. My father and I work together. I go home to my house; he goes home to his. Naturally, my mother is still cooking for everyone, and she occasionally drops off some food. But I haven’t been within 20 feet of her since March 16. My mother has hosted every family get-together every holiday forever, and she had to cancel the holidays this year, which was heartbreaking. So the only thing that’s getting us through this was we all promised that we’re having a huge barbecue when this is all over, for everyone. In our business, we’ve always looked for reasons to celebrate because we know how difficult life can be. But for now, we just have to focus on when everyone can celebrate together again — because that’s what matters.

Read More

Protecting Them While They Protect Us
The importance of personal protective equipment