Akron’s death care workers feel the strain as Ohio hits 10,000 COVID-19 deaths

Reporting, writing and photos by H.L. Comeriato

Today, Kate Benson is tired.

For the last ten months, they’ve worked on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping families make final arrangements for their loved ones.

For Benson, and for death care workers across the country, the second wave of COVID-19 deaths has been difficult, both personally and professionally.

“People just don’t like to think about us, because we do a job they don’t really want to think about,” says Benson, who is both a licensed pre-need specialist and the director of communications at Anthony Funeral Homes. “It’s hard. We’ve all had to adjust. It’s just not the situation that anybody wants.”

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Benson says their role in the death care process has taken on more urgency since COVID-19 deaths spiked for the second time this fall.

“I do all the death certificates, so I have to work with doctors, getting the death certificates signed, getting them all filed at the local health departments, getting burial and cremation permits,” Benson says. “It’s definitely been overwhelming.”

After Halloween, Summit County saw a surge in COVID-19 cases that Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda traced back to small, private gatherings. Several weeks later, Benson says the uptick in COVID-19 deaths was sudden and substantial.

According to data published by Summit County Public Health, the total number of confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 in Summit County more than doubled during the month of November, at least in part due to community spread of the virus at holiday gatherings. By Jan. 19, the county had seen 729 deaths — just 333 fewer than Cuyahoga County, which has a population more than double the size of Summit County’s.

Keeping the death care process in motion throughout the pandemic has proven no small feat, and death care workers are struggling to bear the emotional and psychological weight of the state’s 10,000+ COVID-19 deaths.

“It really does take an emotional toll,” says Benson, who has worked in death care for the last three and a half years. “When I first started, I definitely was not sure how to disconnect myself and set up boundaries, because I’m really sensitive to how other people are feeling. I definitely was consuming these people’s sorrow.”

Since then, Benson says they’ve relied on talk therapy to cope with the emotional and psychological stress of working in death care. But after years of working hard to separate the two, Benson says the pandemic has chipped away at the emotional boundaries between their personal and professional life: “Now, with the pandemic, it’s hitting really hard and I’m struggling again.”

Eric Anthony — a licensed funeral director, embalmer and cremationist — was born into the business. Anthony’s great grandfather, Andrew Joseph Kucko, founded Anthony Funeral Homes in 1917, just one year before the Spanish flu pandemic wiped out nearly a third of the world’s population. A fourth-generation death care worker, Anthony says coping with the stress of working in death care has always come naturally to him.

During the first wave of COVID-19 deaths last spring, Anthony swiftly adapted to state mandates, requiring face coverings and limiting the number of visitors allowed at viewings and memorial services. Like other Akron-area funeral homes, Anthony began live-streaming funeral and memorial services online, and offering to push services back until community spread of the virus could be better controlled.

All the while, COVID-19 transmissions and deaths continued to climb: “By the time I realized we should be keeping track [of COVID-19 deaths],” Anthony says, “I had already lost count.”

In Ohio, embalmers like Anthony can begin the embalming process before receiving a death certificate. But burials or cremations can never be performed without a death certificate, which must always be signed by the physician attending to the person at their time of death, then filed with both the county and the state. 

Tawanda Weems, who works as a registrar at Summit County Public Health, says the spike in COVID-19 deaths in Summit County is both shocking and undeniable.

For the last 14 years, Weems has processed what public health officials call vital statistics for the county — birth and death records, burial and cremation permits.

“Before COVID, for Summit County, we only averaged between 105 to maybe 120 deaths that were reported every week to the state. Now, the average is anywhere from 200 to 220,” Weems says. “When I go through them and review them to make sure that before we ship them to the state they’re all correct, it jumps out at me, all of these individuals, that their immediate cause of death is COVID-19.”

Weems says making sure the information on a person’s death certificate is correct is an important part of how the state tracks and manages COVID-19 deaths. When those records are analyzed, they can help public health officials track new and ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks by mapping out when and where COVID-19 deaths have occurred.

When death certificates are held up, funeral directors aren’t able to move forward with funeral services or internments — a concern only compounded by clusters of COVID-19 deaths.

Weems, who lost a close friend to the virus just before Thanksgiving, says maintaining accurate death records is also an act of human dignity.

“I’m a very passionate person — not necessarily emotional, but I empathize with those who have had severe losses,” Weems says. “You hear about it. You see the documents. You see the news media’s coverage of COVID and the number of deaths. I go to our daily briefings and I see those numbers, but it doesn’t really resonate until you know someone personally.”

“You just have to question yourself, ‘What else would this person’s life have been if not for COVID?’ Most of them are in the prime of their lives. It’s heart-wrenching,” Weems says. “One of the girls here always asks me, ‘How do you do it? How do you look at all these death records?’ She’s been here about two years, and it’s all still fresh to her. She wanted to know if I got used to seeing these deaths. I told her you never get used to seeing them. You never do.”

COVID-19 adjustments now allow funeral directors to file death certificates online and request curbside service at Summit County Public Health. 

Still, Benson says death care workers haven’t always been well protected during the pandemic, or even considered essential.

According to the State of Ohio’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, death care workers are not set to receive the COVID-19 vaccination alongside essential healthcare workers and other at-risk Ohioans during phases 1A and 1B of vaccine distribution.The plan makes no mention of funeral directors, morticians or embalmers — who may all come in contact with the bodies of people infected with the virus or engage with the public during services and visitations.

If death care workers themselves aren’t protected from the virus, Benson says the result of an outbreak among death care workers could be disastrous.

“I really don’t want to shut down,” Benson says. “It’s really frustrating because I want to tell [people], ‘If we catch COVID, we can’t help other people.’ It would be really bad if that happened.”

In spite of the risk, Benson says they’re committed to serving families with dignity and empathy.

“You just try to do so much for people, and we try so hard to make everything perfect, because that’s what we would want,” Benson adds. “It’s more of a vocation than a career, at least with the people I work with. As much as it beats us up, we really enjoy doing this for people when they’re in such a bad situation.”

“A lot of the families that we’ve worked with throughout the year come back to us,” says Benson. “A lot of them tell us how great everything was, or how much they appreciate us — that we were there when they needed us.”

And that, Benson says, is a pretty good feeling. 

H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.