Because this is a novel coronavirus, researchers do not yet know how long it can live inside a person it kills. This uncertainty poses a risk not only to health-care workers trying to save a life, but to those who take over when that life ends. Workers who retrieve bodies from hospitals and handle the physical acts of cremation are at highest risk for infection. As of this week, several of the mortuary’s 17 employees are working from home. Meanwhile, the office workers and counselors, like the de Michaelis brothers, who deal mostly with the families of the dead, are trying to adopt social-distancing practices in a place that offers intimate, communal grieving. They’ve already had to suspend all traditional funerals. “Today I had to tell someone who wanted a viewing that they could only bring two people, and screaming ensued—You’re gonna have to tear my mother off her son’s body!” Will de Michaelis told me.
Like hospitals, grocery stores, and pharmacies, mortuaries have been deemed essential businesses by state governments, meaning they won’t temporarily close to help flatten the curve. But what was once a proud “open-door” establishment has been forced to lock its entrance to maximize safety for those inside. These are high-contact operations, with new customers coming in every day, broadening the potential viral circles for themselves and the workers. The staff now wear masks and gloves for every face-to-face interaction with customers. Will has been communicating with nurses through Instagram about the critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Last week he was on the hunt for N95 respirators for his co-workers; he told me a pack of 10 on Amazon was selling for $200. They’ve recently started what he calls a “drive-through” service, in which an employee hustles an urn of ashes out to an idling car to minimize close contact.