While the plight of healthcare workers has gotten a lot of attention throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, relatively few media reports have addressed the impact on licensed embalmers who work in the funeral-home industry.
One Texas-based embalmer of 30 years, Patrick Huey, writes that his profession is currently "at a breaking point" due to the pandemic, in a column published Monday by the Huffington Post.
Huey also describes the devastating toll of COVID on the bodies of victims, including swelling and infections that make them "unrecognizable" to their loved ones. And he urges people to get vaccinated, in part to help relieve the enormous strain on workers like himself.
"I don't know how much longer I can keep working this way," Huey writes. "I'll never throw my hands up and just say 'screw this!' If the good Lord calls me home and I drop dead at the embalming table, then I guess that'll make for a day off."
At the beginning of the pandemic, embalmers weren't sure if they could safely work on the bodies of COVID victims — but they are now doing so with personal protective equipment. Huey explains that funeral homes prefer to embalm bodies because they can then be stored without refrigeration — and in many places including his mortuary, the freezers are full.
From late November through mid-March, when Texas experienced its first COVID wave, Huey said embalmers were pulling 22- and 36-hour shifts, and 65 percent of bodies were COVID victims.
"We've just had to buckle down and do the best that we can," he writes. "The Internet has been a blessing because it allows all of us embalmers to communicate and find out what issues everyone is having because so much of this has been unlike anything we've seen before. We get bodies out of ICU regularly, but not in the condition that these COVID bodies are in."
He goes on to describe in graphic detail how the bodies of COVID victims are "tremendously swollen" with "huge lesions" on their cheeks that have "gone gangrene" and blood clots "the size of pancakes." Despite specializing in post-mortem reconstruction of trauma victims, Huey says there's little he can do in these cases.
"The sad part is the families of these people, at that point, hadn't been allowed to see their loved ones during the several weeks that they were in the ICU," he writes. "So the body comes out in an almost unrecognizable condition, and then you have to explain to their family that their loved one doesn't look anything like what they should. ... And for a lot of these families, it's just a tremendous shock."
During the latest Texas COVID surge, fueled by the Delta variant, Huey said he's noticed more victims in their 30s, 40s and 50s because most seniors are vaccinated. The victims are also dying faster and spending less time in the ICU, which is actually a "benefit" to embalmers because their bodies are in better condition. Huey says he's currently working 19 to 20 hours on the first day of his two-day shifts, and rarely gets to see his family. His mortuary will sometimes receive an unprecedented 10 bodies a day, and about 85 percent of them are COVID victims.
"Seeing so many of these people who have passed away who shouldn't have died in the first place and the husbands and wives passing within days of each other ― on top of just the mass volume ― is a lot to deal with," he said, adding that embalmers are also constantly worried about their own safety. "Although we try to distance ourselves professionally as much as possible while doing our jobs, it wears on us. There are a lot of us that definitely have some PTSD ― or just traumatic stress. It's really, really hard."
Huey's mortuary recently received a large FEMA refrigeration trailer after its freezers holding 120 bodies became full. He says if they run out of refrigeration space, they'll have to embalm all of the bodies or bury them within 24 hours — which is a problem given a "major shortage" of embalmers in Texas.
Despite precautions, many embalmers have died from COVID, and some recent mortuary school graduates have quit because they couldn't handle it after getting slammed with coronavirus victims, Huey writes.
"[The embalmers] are just doing the best that we can, and I wish that people would just do the best that they can to stay safe," Huey writes. "I want everyone to take this seriously and to remember that the repercussions of their actions run downhill, and we funeral professionals are down near the bottom of that hill.
"Lastly, I'll just say I wish this would quit being such a political thing," he adds. "People want to blame one party or the other, and I don't know what the answer is. I do know that the studies have shown the vaccination works and I wish more people would get it. And sometimes we have to have our freedoms infringed upon just a little bit for the betterment of the entire population. We're just trying to do our part ― and we wish everyone else would do the same."