Patrick Huey contacted HuffPost after reading a story about a Florida-based ICU doctor who broke down on CNN while being interviewed about patients dying of COVID-19. The Texas-based funeral professional, who has worked as an embalmer for the past 30 years and won the South Central Texas Funeral Directors Association’s first-ever Embalmer of the Year award in 2019, offered to share his own harrowing COVID-related experiences, as well as the toll working in the funeral industry during the pandemic is taking on him and his colleagues.
His account below has been lightly edited for clarity.
When COVID first started, we really didn’t know a whole lot about how it was spread ― or, really, much else. There just wasn’t a lot of information out there. A lot of the states were recommending or even mandating not embalming bodies because so much was unknown at the time regarding how contagious COVID was, how it was spread, the fatality rate, and what chemicals effectively killed it.
As time went by, we found that the bodies could be embalmed. That’s our preference if you have to store people for any length of time. Our opinion is that it’s much, much safer if the body has been embalmed and bathed, and then we can store them without having to utilize refrigeration.
It wasn’t until about late November or early December of last year when the surge really hit us in Texas, and then it was just awful. Just awful. We were pulling 22- and 36-hour shifts, and we were short-handed to begin with. We went like that until about the middle of March. At that point about 65%, or maybe a little less, of the bodies we were receiving had COVID.
The death rate in general over the past few years has been unprecedented. The baby boomer generation has begun to die, and we are seeing more bodies than ever before. Add COVID to that and we’re reaching a breaking point.
“We get bodies out of ICU regularly, but not in the condition that these COVID bodies are in.”
We’ve just had to buckle down and do the best that we can. 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. They’re tremendously swollen. If they’ve been on a ventilator, that often completely runs down their immune system. It also opens them up to a lot of sepsis and secondary infections that tend to hang around hospitals, like penicillin-resistant staph infections.
These folks were so swollen they were completely unrecognizable. We were also getting sent a lot of people who had died from COVID in nursing homes back at that time, and many of them had not been dead very long at all. Generally when we embalm, we utilize a major artery to inject the embalming fluid and we use its adjoining vein for drainage. The blood tends to settle out because it’s no longer flowing and it’ll gravitate to the dependent part of the body. The longer a body sits, the more blood clots that they develop. I was having people that had only been dead for a few hours and there were major clotting issues. The clots were the size of pancakes ― you never, never see those with someone who didn’t die of COVID.
I’ve been doing this for 30 years and pretty much everywhere I’ve worked has been medium to high volume. I’m not one of those embalmers that works at a place that just does 50 or 60 bodies a year. So I’ve done this long enough and I’ve seen enough that I would know when something different pops up. COVID is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Many of the people who were in the ICU were on ventilators, and they put adhesive patches on their cheeks. They can easily become septic and they drip that septic saliva on the sides of their faces and the skin in that area gets infected. We were literally receiving bodies with huge lesions on their cheeks or [patches that had gone] gangrene. 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. 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.
Despite the fact that I specialize in postmortem reconstruction ― accidents, trauma, stuff like that ― when the bodies are that swollen, there is very little I can do to eliminate that. And for a lot of these families, it’s just a tremendous shock. I’ve had husbands and wives die within days of each other. I’ve seen entire families wiped out. It’s horrible.
With this current surge from [the delta variant], I notice we’re not getting bodies out of the nursing homes like we were the last time, most likely due to the fact that most of these old nursing home patients have been vaccinated. Right now the bodies I’m seeing are ranging from the late 20s to the elderly. We’ve had quite a few bodies in their mid-to-late 30s, 40s, 50s. I’ve also noticed that with delta, for the most part, these people were not spending nearly as much time in the ICU before they die. Sadly, that’s been to our benefit because they’re not in as bad of a condition as they were with the last surge.
We’re just doing what we can, but we’re constantly worried about our own safety while working. At my facility, we’re wearing N95 masks because the filtration is so much better and it makes it a good positive seal on your face. I’ve got a mask with a respirator that uses the P100 multivapor cartridges. Aside from that, we’re wearing our standard personal protective equipment and taking extra precautions ― keep our faces covered and doing whatever we can to keep our risks as low as we possibly can. As far as handling the body goes, if you roll the body, if you put pressure on the chest, there’s the chance of expelling air from the lungs.
After we get done embalming a body, we pack the nasal passages and everything else and once it’s bathed well and preserved well, to me, it’s as safe as it can possibly be and should not pose a risk to the families or anyone else who comes in contact with it. I really wish we were embalming them all, but we just don’t have the manpower right now. As far as licensed embalmers, there’s a definitely a big shortage, especially down here in Texas.
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. 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.
My wife and I don’t get to see much of each other. I’ve got two kids who just started college, and they don’t get to see nearly as much of me as they would like to. And it’s very difficult. Right now shifts start at 8 a.m. and we are currently working 19 to 20 hours the first day of our two-day shifts. Then we’re back up after sleeping a few hours, and we don’t sleep that second night of work. Then I go home and either work other places in my town ― I live in East Texas and I drive to central Texas for work and, even when I’m home, I often help out at the local funeral home here and other places are calling for help ― or, if I am lucky, I will sleep 30 hours straight. My downfall or failing has been the inability to tell people “no” when they call for help.
I’d say 85% of the people who are coming in right now passed from COVID. A lot of them are coming from the ICU. It’s not uncommon to get bodies from there, but what is uncommon is to get seven or eight or 10 bodies a day.
It’s so bad that we have had to get one of those large government FEMA refrigerated trailers. We’ve never had that before. Our facility has the ability to hold somewhere around 90 or 100 bodies in the walk-in refrigerator in our building, and another smaller one in the garage will hold another 18 or so bodies. And we’re full! If it comes down to it and we completely run out of refrigeration space, we will wind up having to embalm everybody that comes in that we can’t put into refrigeration. Basically, if we can’t get a body into refrigeration or buried within 24 hours, then we have to embalm, and there are only so many people who are qualified to do that.
“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.”
I don’t know how much longer I can keep working this way. 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.
We are losing staff in places. A lot of new folks are graduating from mortuary school. They’re starting to work and are immediately slammed with COVID cases and they can’t handle it and and they wind up getting out. We’ve had a lot of funeral professionals who have gotten COVID, and there have been several I know of who have died from it.
The smaller, independent funeral homes, when they’re dealing with COVID, the next thing you know, their entire staff has it. And they pretty much have to take the phone off the hook, lock doors and shut down because they don’t have anybody to run the place. So, we’ve got a lot of embalmers who are traveling around from place to place, just trying to help out everybody who has shortages ― just to keep the doors open and keep serving the public.
I’m on Facebook and whatever occasionally, but I don’t post a lot about my job and about what I do, because it’s just my job and I just do it. [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. 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. 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.