In This Episode
This week, Alex explores the ways in which Covid-19 is changing our rituals around death and life, grief and celebration. First, she speaks with funeral director Mark Flower about how he’s handled new restrictions on funeral services amid unprecedented demand. Then, Alex talks to Rabbi Sharon Brous, who explains how her community is adapting to a ban on religious gatherings in the middle of a spiritual crisis. As Christians, Jews and Muslims grapple with the question of where to turn (and what to do) in one of the holiest weeks of the year, citizens of all denominations must face one of the deadliest weeks of the pandemic. Rituals take on a new urgency for both atheists and the faithful alike.
Alex Wagner: Peggy O’Leary grew up in a funeral home, her family’s business. And as with most family businesses, Peggy began helping out when she was a kid.
Peggy O’Leary: When I was little, I was an altar server. And I don’t know why this funeral specifically, I, it was a little old lady. There was like five people in church and the old man was crying and I could not stop crying on the altar, like sobbing. And now in my mind, I’m like 13, I’m like, no one’s noticing me, but I don’t know why this funeral of all the funerals that I’d seen or I’d, you know, served, this one—I think it was because it was such a small intimate. And I remember thinking, like I mean, my family is eight, like, so there was less people here for this little old lady than there are in my immediate family. But so when I came home, I’ve never had my mom have this look of like she was mad at me, and I was like, what’s wrong? And she’s like, so we have to have a conversation, you cannot cry at funerals. Your dad came home and told me that you were sobbing on the altar, which obviously it’s sad and if you don’t want to work funerals, you shouldn’t do it. But it’s not about us. And you have to remember that, that like if you do feel like you’re going to cry, you need to step away. We have to be the person that when you come and you’re a mess and you can’t even remember what your mom’s maiden name was, you know, we have to be the calming person that helps you get through it from start to finish.
Alex Wagner: One of the things you mentioned is that there were probably more O’Learys in the funeral home than there were attendees at the funeral for that old woman who died. And that seems like a particularly striking detail in this moment when the people who are dying aren’t allowed to have their families at services around them when they pass, otherwise remembering their lives. And I just, I feel like part of that memory is about the loneliness of death, right, and that seems to have struck you at a really young age. And as we enter this moment where so many people are so alone, it just seems like a really piercing thing to have to grapple with as someone who’s witnessing so much of it.
Peggy O’Leary: Yeah, I mean, I don’t, my whole life, there was always like an army around me because I’m the youngest. I can’t imagine that if one of, like if somebody died, if we could not be together. Like that, to me, would be so horrible and terrifying.
Alex Wagner, narrating: Hi, welcome to Six Feet Apart. I’m Alex Wagner. Today, we’re talking about rituals. Peggy’s funeral home, like many others, is figuring out day by day how to function in the age of the pandemic. Viewings, gatherings, celebrations—those things have all changed. And in most cases, in most places, they’re not happening at all, at least for now. On Sunday, the Surgeon General of the United States told the country that this would be the hardest and saddest week of most Americans lives. The deaths will be numerous and they will be widespread and they will be happening during Holy Week, the seven days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in the Christian calendar and the week of Passover and Ramadan. But Easter mass and Seder dinner and evening break-fast will look nothing like years past. That’s because on top of the overwhelming emotional strain of this moment, the ways in which we traditionally come together to manage overwhelming emotional strain have been totally dismantled. So what do we do? That’s what we’re going to hear about today. What happens to rituals, the ways we pay our respects and grieve and console and get through the tough times—what happens to those rituals in a moment of complete social isolation? And what does that mean for the people who rely on them? First, we’re going to speak to Mark Flower, a third generation funeral director of the Flower Funeral Home, which is right outside of New York City in Westchester County. If you remember, in early March, Westchester County was the site of the nation’s first cluster of COVID-19 cases, and it quickly became the epicenter of the pandemic at the start of the outbreak in the U.S. That epicenter has since shifted south just a few miles to New York City, which is now the epicenter of the global pandemic. And then we’re going to speak with Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founder of IKAR, a Los Angeles synagogue and faith community. Right now, like countless other spiritual leaders, Rabbi Brous hasn’t been able to meet with her flock in person, but that isn’t stopping her. She’s been conducting religious sermons online. And this week, members of her synagogue are having their Seder dinners over Zoom. But first, here’s Mark Flower.
Alex Wagner: So, Mark, let’s just start with how this pandemic has changed your business. What was your workload like before the pandemic began?
Mark Flower: The workload before we averaged two to three funerals a week. That’s an average. Sometimes we might do five, sometimes I might do one. You never know. Now we’re doing, today, I went to the crematory with six cases, we’re doing probably six plus a day.
Alex Wagner: Wow.
Mark Flower: And it’s to the point where I literally have had to tell families more than once, I just can’t help them. I mean, the first couple of days, I was working 20-hour days thinking, all right, if I put the time in, I’ll be able to catch up and then tomorrow I’ll be a better day. And then tomorrow comes and just the phone won’t stop ringing. And you’ve got to start saying no, because I can’t, I can’t treat my clients, the ones that I have, I can’t take care of them if I keep taking on more people. So what I try to do is prioritize nursing home deaths where they don’t have a morgue. So I can take them, I can take them, I have to get them right away, or someone who passes away at home. And we’re not having, we’re not having funerals anymore because this disease is so contagious. We have families walk in here, they don’t even know if they’re carriers of the disease.
Alex Wagner: Right.
Mark Flower: And we have people dying in nursing homes that are 80, 90, 100 years old, and they’re not dying of natural causes. They’re dying from this disease. I mean, can you imagine living your life until your 90s and then you succumb to this, not dying from old age, you know? I don’t think I’ll ever seen anything like this again.
Alex Wagner: Well, we certainly hope you don’t.
Mark Flower: Yeah.
Alex Wagner: What does it mean to say no to a family? What is that like?
Mark Flower: Oh, God, it rips your heart out. Because they’re coming—we’re on the the New York City border, we’re in Westchester County so most of my work that we’re getting now is from the city, people that live in the Bronx, Manhattan. And I don’t know if our name is getting out there or what, but they’re coming to us and saying, please, can you help me because our funeral homes that just lock their doors and, you know, took their phone off the hook because they just can’t take any more business. And for us to say, try to call me back tomorrow, I’ll see what I could do—it hurts because we’re in the business of compassion, you know? We’re there to help somebody. But at the same time, I’ve you know, I realize now that I can’t help them if I can’t help myself, if I can’t keep up with the amount of work there is then I’m not doing any justice to them or their loved one. So you got to, and I’ve never had to do this before, you know, you’ve got to try to draw a line and say, all right, I took ten cases today, because not only do we take on a case, but then we have to deal with cemeteries. In the tristate area, most all of them are locked. You can’t even get in. So we’re calling people that aren’t at the cemetery. We’re trying to get home numbers, have graves opened up so we could do burials. And then we have the crematories on the other end that, you know, they’re getting 60 cases, 50 cases a day. They’re locking their gates up like 12:00 going we can’t take anymore, we have no more storage. And then they got to catch up. You know, I do have a refrigerator, but I can only store so many people in there. And I can’t start converting my chapels into morgues. I just, I just can’t do that. Now we’re blowing through supplies like crazy, body bags and gloves and masks and it’s, you know, what I go through in six months, I’m going through in a week now because it’s just, it’s daunting. It’s absolutely daunting.
Alex Wagner: Mark, you’re talking about pulling 20 hour days and what you’re shepherding families through is arguably one of the most, if not the most important passages, rituals in human existence. Are you sleeping? How are you dealing with this?
Mark Flower: I’m sleeping now, but I’ll be honest with you, the first week that this started happening, it really got to me because I remember I did a house removal of a woman whose mother had died and she wasn’t really aware of what was going on in the outside world, she was at home with her mom and she had prearranged, the mother had arranged a whole funeral. And I had to tell her, we can’t do that. We can’t go to church. At that time, the churches were allowing a priest to come, just say some words at the funeral home. And she’s like, what do you mean I can’t go to church? I’m like, they’re closed. And so it was like, not only did she lose her mother, she had to deal with that, but then I had to give her the second blow, which is you can’t have a traditional funeral now. And like that killed me to say that to that person. It really, it really got to me. And to explain to her because she really didn’t know what was going on. She didn’t really understand the severity of what was going on. Now, I got to tell them, listen, you can’t have an open casket. You can’t you know, you can’t—if you go to the cemetery, you got to stay in your car. You’re not even allowed to come out of your car, or the cemetery workers will walk away from the job. And then, you know, I’ll get a phone call from the cemetery owner, we told you no one’s allowed out of their car. I mean, we’re like the middleman for all this. You know, we take the brunt of when people are emotional, they come to us and they tell us all our problems, and psychologically, we try to keep everybody calm. And, you know, it’s not easy. We’re in a very difficult position.
Alex Wagner: How do you deal with that, though? I mean, look, I would assume you went into this line of work so you can deal with the idea of death and walking people through that. But to have to tell people you have to stay in your car at the cemetery while your mother is interred, is not something anybody in this line of work thought they were ever going to have to do.
Mark Flower: No, no. Because let’s face it, when we do funerals, they’re for the living, they’re not for the dead. And it’s the way we honor somebody when they pass away. And now we’re saying you can’t honor your loved one. I mean, it’s heartbreaking. But this virus is the reason why it is a pandemic is because it’s highly contagious, and some people get it and others don’t. And unfortunately, we’re the ones that have to bring the bad news to the people. But I also have a family myself, you know, I have a wife and three children. So I don’t, as of right now, I don’t come to work in a suit and tie. I come in jeans and a nice shirt because when I go home, I get into my basement, my wife meet me there, she gives me a garbage bag, I put all my clothes into a garbage bag, she brings it up to the washing machine that has a sterilize feature on it. She throws everything in there, my shoes gets left outside, sprayed down with Lysol, and I get basically decontaminated. I go right to the shower before I say hi to my kids, before I have my dinner or anything. That’s my routine right now, because this disease does attach itself to clothing and I’m going into nursing homes and coolers that have coronavirus deaths in them and that’s blowing around in there and I’m sure it’s on me. I just don’t want to transfer it to my wife and kids. So I have to be ultra careful as well. So . . .
Alex Wagner: For people who don’t understand the sort of course, the chain of events that has led to this moment, if you could just start us at the beginning of this, which was unbelievably just a few weeks ago, right, or at least for most of the American public. At what point did you realize that COVID-19 was going to be a problem for your industry and for your business?
Mark Flower: It was like, I think it was the March of, the week of March 22nd, like right around there all of a sudden, we just started getting all these nursing home deaths. I mean, it was just like one nursing home I think I went to five times in two days. Like, that’s unheard of. And then I realized I’m like, oh, my God, I think that it’s got to be this virus. I mean, it has to be. And then the calls just started coming in, one nursing home, then another nursing home and then a hospital. And it just it was like a snowball. And that’s when I realized this was getting to be really bad.
Alex Wagner: Is it mostly the families of deceased older men and women?
Mark Flower: Many, many are older, but there are a lot of young people, too. There’s, you know, people in their 40s that are diabetic, overweight. That seems to be for young people, that seems to be the downfall with this disease, especially people that are diabetic for some reason. We’re getting all different ages, but we are getting a lot of elderly because they were in nursing homes. So, it’s every age range, it’s every race, every creed, every color. This disease doesn’t care if you’re young, you’re old. It’ll take you out. It’s, it’s crazy, I, I’m at a loss for words to be honest with you. I can’t describe the, the amount of people that this disease is taking down. And people really should pay attention to. It is not something to play with. I mean, I’ve I heard a mother just had given birth in one of the hospitals in the city and the poor baby succumbed to it. You know, she had a baby that came down with it and died. I mean, you know, it doesn’t matter how old you are, if, this disease will take you down if you have it.
Alex Wagner: Sure.
Mark Flower: I think the biggest problem with this disease right now is that there’s no testing of who has it and who doesn’t. I mean, for all I know right now, I could have it and I could be a carrier. And if you were here in my office, I could give it to you. And I’ve had, I’ve had people that, I had a person that went into a procedure at one of the biggest hospitals in New York City and he never had the procedure but caught the virus, was in there for three or four days, they tested him. The test came back positive. They tell the family, well, now you can’t see him anymore, and the person dies from it. Guy was only 40 years old. They come into my office and the first thing I said to them was, what did you guys test negative? And they looked at me like a deer in the headlights. What are you talking about? I said, well, if your husband had the disease in the hospital and you were visiting them and then he tested positive, wouldn’t you think you guys would be tested? I mean, you’ve been with them and they said, no, they never tested us. And now they’re in my office six feet from me. And I’m like losing it. I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. These people could be walking around disease infecting everybody, and it’s no fault of their own, they don’t understand what’s going on, really. And they should have been tested because had they been tested and they came up positive, they should have been quarantined at home. This is the problem with, this is why this disease is spreading, because there’s no testing of who has it and who doesn’t have it. Every time I go into a nursing home or a hospital, they’ll take my temperature. Well, that’s nice, but does that mean I have it? No, I could have it not have a temperature. Let’s be honest. I mean, they’re trying to be proactive, but it doesn’t solve the problem, which is I really should be tested because if I’m carrying it, I could give it to somebody else. Right now, there’s no closure. And that’s the hard thing for families. When you can’t say goodbye, you can’t talk to that person, and it sets in, you know, when you’re out awake and you see someone, it’s like, wow, they’re really, they really did pass away. You know, it it hits home and it helps with the whole grieving process. And I think what’s going to happen is a lot of these people, they’re going to, they’re going to need psychological help because they’re not able to grieve. We can’t, you can’t hug somebody right now. You can’t, you can’t do that. It goes against everything that a human being wants to do for another human being as far as support and—.
Alex Wagner: People aren’t getting that.
Mark Flower: Yeah, people aren’t getting that.
Alex Wagner: So the U.S. Surgeon General told the country on Sunday that this could be effectively the worst week in our collective American experience. It’s also Passover this week, and it’s Easter. As someone who is running, you know, funeral services or interment services, how have you thought about that?
Mark Flower: Well, when you, if you’re if you’re Christian or Catholic, you know, you know, Jesus was crucified and, you know, he rose again and that’s the celebration of Easter, when they rolled back the tomb and his body was gone. I mean, how ironic that this could be the week that we might peak as far as the amount of deaths happening, and it’s the week of celebrating Jesus risen. I mean, I think that it’s very profound and very reflective. I think there’s something to be said for praying for someone’s soul and someone’s being and reflecting on, not only them, but on the life that they had. And hopefully it’ll give some solace to them. So that’s my hope.
Alex Wagner: Mark, you are doing such difficult and such important work and such hard work. And I feel like we aren’t able to collectively issue the gratitude that we should be as a society. And I know it’s really tough, but it’s, we all really appreciate what you’re doing and especially thank you for taking time out of what is an unimaginably chaotic moment for you professionally and personally. So thank you so much, Mark.
Mark Flower: Well, thanks for, thanks for asking me to come on, and me be able to vent a little. It actually helps, actually helps me a little bit too.
Alex Wagner, narrating: I spoke to Rabbi Brous about how she thinks people can reaffirm their faith in the middle of this crisis.
Alex Wagner: Rabbi, I have to first start with the sort of religious reality we are grappling with amid a pandemic. Passover is this week. Seder dinner is just this incredible ritual that even non-Jews in the world may have participated in. And I wonder from your perspective what it is about the performance of that ritual that has such resonance and why you think it’s so important to people who may not even be Jewish.
Rabbi Sharon Brous: Right. So, first of all, in the Jewish community, this Seder, the ritual of Seder and the observance of Passover is the one observance that the most amount of Jews are likely to engage in. There are very few things that that many Jews can agree upon, but the observance or some kind of engagement with this holiday is one of them. And so it’s not only in the religious community, but also in the secular community. And there are thousands of different kinds of Haggadah that have been written telling this story in all kinds of different ways. The feminist version, the Haggadah of the liberated lamb, telling this, telling the story not only as the liberation of people, but also animals. The liberation story told through the lens of refugee communities, told through all kinds of varieties of narrations. It’s a particular story with a universal hold. And there’s a sense that this journey of the Israelite people was not a one-time event that happened thousands of years ago, a story of a minority community that was oppressed under a pharaoh who was really felt very threatened by this small minority community and ended up exerting power to oppress and degrade, and then was able to walk toward freedom. That was not a story that happened one time in history. But that is a paradigm for redemption that happens again and again and again throughout the course of history. And it happens to us not only communally, but also individually and also globally. And so it operates on many levels, this narrative of redemption. And that, I think is very resonant for people because it helps us understand that wherever we are, if we’re in a moment or a chapter of darkness, oppression, narrowness, degradation, enslavement—that it is possible for us to walk toward freedom. And it may not happen this week or this month or this year or even in my lifetime, but the human journey is a journey, as we say, in Hebrew [speaking Hebrew], from darkness into light. And that trajectory is a very powerful source of hope. I see this as the great, that this is the closest thing to the genetic transmission of hope that we could possibly offer, the kind of obsessive reworking and retelling of this story year after year, generation after generation.
Alex Wagner: It’s a story that’s also told collectively, though, right? I mean, that’s one of the things about Seder dinner that’s so unique, is you come together and you share the story together and you break bread. And that’s, I mean, I’m not a rabbi, I was raised Catholic, but that seems to be part of the sort of DNA of of Seder dinner. And I know that that can’t happen this year, right? So temples all over the country, all over the world are trying to sort of figure out like what’s the guidance on that? And on a practical level, I mean, how have you guys thought about telling your community, Jewish or not, to come together? What are you advising them for this week, and generally speaking, as they try and grapple with this moment, if they can’t be physically together?
Rabbi Sharon Brous: Right. So first, I want to, I want to say that I think that isolation, I think that physical distancing is extremely painful and real for people, especially on Seder night, where, you know, this is a very communal experience. It’s not one that people often have in synagogue, it’s one that we have in our homes but our homes are packed with people. It’s a mitzvah. It’s a religious obligation and a great thing to to open up your doors and bring guests into your table. To not be able to share this holiday with family is a real loss, and it’s really critical in this moment that we actually respect the fact that we all, that we need to be operating in isolation right now. And there have been a number of rabbinic authorities that have passed rulings, some of them really surprising rulings to my mind in the last week or two weeks, that have said that we are now permitted to use Zoom technology at the Seder so that precisely so that grandparents can watch their grandchildren recite the four questions, which is this time-honored tradition and really essential, I think, to people’s spiritual health and well-being.
Alex Wagner: At what point did you realize that the virus was going to be sort of shaping your professional life? At what point did you realize it was going to be a problem for your work in particular?
Rabbi Sharon Brous: I think by the end of January, it was pretty clear that this was going to affect the world in really dramatic ways. I remember seeing an image of the streets in Wuhan, China, in early January, and the streets were just empty and it was devastating. And I thought, what would it take to shut, to shut the world down? And then, and then honestly thought about what happens when a crisis hits and we don’t have political leadership that we can trust. Then who can we trust and who do we turn to, to get an honest reckoning so that we can keep ourselves and our people safe? And then it was about a month after that, that I heard from one of the doctors who’s been really involved in helping shape the national response to this, who said the quarantine is coming, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. So you need to start preparing to go virtual. And we really thought, OK, it’s an exaggeration, this is—like the challenge that we’ll be facing is the spiritual challenge of how do we reckon with a world in which so much destruction and devastation is possible, and then ultimately really trying to deal with the pain of isolation and anticipatory grief, which is something that’s very real. And then actual grief, as people are getting sick in the communities and, you know, and losing loved ones and dealing with the unthinkable human predicament of needing to lay loved ones to rest by Zoom because they can’t actually go to the burials. Too horrible to even think of, and yet now the reality for many, many people.
Alex Wagner: I think what is seems particularly cruel in this moment of tragedy is that most of the earth is forced to be alone. How have you been talking to the people that seek wisdom from you in this moment of loneliness coupled with darkness?
Rabbi Sharon Brous: This is the hardest thing. In this, because the, what we understand to be the hardest month, month of April and potentially even the hardest week being this week and next, a lot of people been looking to the Passover story to try to figure out where the echoes of the past are very much alive in this moment, and talking about which plague is the plague of coronavirus. Some people are calling it the 11th plague. Other people are trying to find a way to connect it to one of the 10 plagues that appears in the story. And it looks a lot like the 5th plague, actually, which was a pandemic, it was a pestilence that struck the earth. And it occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that actually this is not like the fifth plague. This is like the ninth plague, which is the plague of darkness. And the way the Torah describes it in the Hebrew Bible, it’s described that a darkness that’s so thick that you could touch it descends on the earth. And darkness doesn’t seem like it’s so bad because it’s just three days in the dark, and yet it’s the ninth plague, which means it’s the second most severe plague, because the only one worse than that is the death of the first born, the tenth plague. And the rabbis say that what’s so bad about it is that when the darkness descends, nobody could see their neighbor, and when you can’t see your neighbor, you also feel like you can’t be seen and you begin to feel impotent and invisible, like you’ve been erased. And that just strips the human spirit of all meaning. And so, and it feels like that’s what’s happening. We can’t touch each other. We have people who are in ICU who are dying and their family members can’t hold their hands. And I mean, that’s, it’s so inhumane what’s happening. And it’s the right thing for them, for us to be kept away from our loved ones, but it feels inhuman, actually, because that’s what we do. That’s our superpower. We touch each other. We hold each other, we cry together. And yet we aren’t allowed to do that in this moment. The first, the second week, the second Shabbat after the isolation, my best friend’s father died and she came and knocked on our gate and we stood more than six feet apart, and she told me my father just died. And I couldn’t hug her. And like that’s what we do. We hold people in our grief. We share grief because we see each other and we let ourselves be seen by each other. And so what I think we have to do is recognize the actual pain of the darkness. Now, this is hard sometimes when the sky is blue and the flowers are blooming and, you know, and it feels very weirdly eerily normal outside. It’s like the most beautiful version of our cities because there’s not crazy traffic and all the noise from outside, and yet the plague of darkness has descended upon us. And I feel that what we have to do is we have to actively work to find an antidote to the plague of darkness, which is we can’t sit, we can’t hug each other and we can’t see each other’s Seder table and we can’t celebrate Easter dinner together, right. And we can’t go to mass together, and we can’t have Ramadan, you know, we can have break-fast together. And yet we have to find ways to be together. And that’s where our greatest creativity is called upon. And we also have to remember that shortly after the plague of darkness, the redemption started. And we’re also going to have a redemption story that comes out of this, because at some point this plague will be lifted also. And we’re going to get the green light that we can go back safely into our public spaces and into each other’s homes. And I think that there’s going to be a real trauma that will come at that point because people are, you know, are going to have a lot of grieving that we need to do for all that we’ve lost from these months or even this year. We don’t know how long it will be. But after we grieve, we’re going to get a chance to rebuild. And that’s the moment where all of this creativity and all of the lessons learned about the kind of society that we let ourselves live in over the course of these many years, where people weren’t getting paid sick leave, you know, and where the people that we’re now finally calling essential workers were treated not like, not only that, they weren’t essential, but they were treated like criminals in our country, right. Because the people who are picking our fruit and stocking our grocery shelves, like we’re seeing a reordering right now in our society that, I think is so critical. When the Israelites left Egypt, they had to build a new society that was counter to the society in which the oppression took place. And I think we’re going to have not only an opportunity, but an imperative to do the same thing in America and all throughout the world. What will we do with the lessons that we’ve learned through this plague of darkness to actually build a society that’s rooted in justice and equity and equality and human dignity and love, which was so absent from the public discourse, especially over the last few years, but even longer. How will we take what we’ve learned and build something beautiful from all of this?
Alex Wagner: So redemption is the hope in the darkness. It is a powerful, powerful light to look towards in the middle of what certainly feels like a plague of darkness. Thank you for what you’re doing. Even though I’m not a member of your temple, it’s clear that the vibrations you’re putting into the universe are helping a lot of people. I think that idea of imagining the redemption is a pretty powerful thesis to work, from this week in particular. Thank you for your time and good luck out there.
Rabbi Sharon Brous: Take care.
Alex Wagner: Before we end the show, we wanted to update you on a storyline from last week’s episode. Remember Tony, the crew member at Trader Joe’s? This week, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and the supermarket chain Giant confirmed that employees at all of those stores have died from COVID-19. The Washington Post is reporting that Walmart is now hiring 150,000 workers to meet its staffing needs. Many of their essential employees are unable to work due to a number of factors, including illness and other dangers they face by working on the front lines of this pandemic.
Alex Wagner: That’s all for this episode of Six Feet Apart. Our show is produced by Alisa Gutierrez and Lyra Smith. Lyra Smith is our story editor. Our executive producer is Sara Geismer. Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Stephen Hoffman and Sidney Rapp. Thanks for listening and stay safe.