Entrance sign to the Basralian Funeral Home in NJ

Armenian Funeral Homes in New York and New Jersey Overwhelmed by COVID-19 Crisis

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NEW YORK/NEW JERSEY – Armenians who are active in community life come together in all types of venues which have been affected by the novel coronavirus, and this includes the final venues for many, funeral homes and cemeteries. In some parts of the US, there are still Armenian-owned funeral homes which often have been family-run businesses handed down from generation to generation. Their ties run deep with local Armenians and they have been struggling to deal with the heavy death toll of COVID-19 along with the restrictions placed on their operations by government authorities. Those in New York and neighboring New Jersey turned out to be in a particularly dangerous global hotspot or center for the spread of COVID-19 in March and especially April of this year.

New Jersey

Bill Basralian is the owner of the William G. Basralian Funeral Home, a small 15-year-old business in Oradell, NJ with, he estimates, approximately 75 percent Armenian clientele.

William G. Basralian Funeral Home

Basralian said that at the peak of the crisis so far in April, “I had to refuse something like 20 funerals. It was a lot of stress. The people who service me, doing removals [of bodies] and preparations were burning out because of the work. Some of the people helping transport the bodies were not even picking up their phones because they were so overwhelmed with everything.”

It was a chain of events that turned into an avalanche of bodies headed for funeral homes like that of Basralian. Nursing homes were unable to provide for the people dying there. Crematories were backed up for almost a month. Cemeteries were doing burials every 20 minutes yet you had to wait five days for an appointment. Even the president of a casket company could be seen personally delivering his caskets to try to keep up with the demand.

Basralian exclaimed, “The whole business never experienced anything like this before. It was almost like a plague.”

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In a domino effect, people were bringing bodies from New York to New Jersey funeral homes because New York was overwhelmed. Some of Basralian’s friends in the profession had to use refrigerated tractor trailers for bodies, while the local hospital had four such tractor trailers.

Families were desperate. One person, Basralian recalled, had called three funeral homes prior to calling him for help.

Basralian was doing three funerals a day at the peak. Basralian’s office administrator Vanessa Case said that on average the funeral home would have 10-12 funerals a month but from March to April they did 44. April itself was the hardest month, with 32 funerals, of which, she said, 30 were noted as confirmed COVID-19 cases. For two weeks that month, there were two funerals a day, morning and afternoon, straight from Monday to Saturday. She confirmed that 22 funerals had to be turned down.

While most deaths were of people in the high risk demographic, there were two or three of people in their late 40s and early 50s, Case said. Things quickly slowed down in May, with only six funerals total, of which only two were of COVID-19 victims.

The virus was scary for the morticians as much as it was for hospital workers. Basralian said, “We were so busy and tired, and we were afraid we were going to get sick ourselves. It came out so fast and killed so quickly. It was like AIDS at first. Sometimes they said that the bodies were in the morgue for 24 or 48 hours and maybe the virus died, but nobody knew….We didn’t know if the germs would escape from the mouth when you are standing over the body. You don’t know what is going to happen. Though a lot of the victims were senior citizens from nursing homes, there were younger people too.”

In March, when people began dying of COVID-19 in large numbers, Basralian Funeral Home treated every case as if it were a COVID-19 one. Basralian and his staff used masks and goggles and put chemicals to disinfect the face of the corpse.

The visiting room was halved in size, with only 9 chairs spaced out from each other. Case said when anyone came to view someone, afterwards the staff completely disinfected the entire room and cleaned with Lysol. Purell stands and hand-washing signs were placed everywhere. The downstairs area including bathrooms was closed to the public, with only one first floor bathroom left accessible.

Traditional visitation prior to the burial was not possible, with New Jersey’s governor mandating that no service other than identification could occur at the funeral home. However, it was hard for people who often had not been able to see their loved ones at nursing homes for some time before they died.

Basralian believed that each family needs some time to grieve and see their loved one in the casket. Consequently, he would allow a maximum of 10 family members to come briefly to the home, for a maximum of 30 minutes, usually sometime between two and four hours before the burial. Case said that only some families utilized the opportunity, because others were concerned about the virus and preferred to go straight to the cemetery.

The Armenian Church (both Eastern Diocese and Eastern Prelacy), the Armenian Presbyterian Church and the local Catholic Archdiocese did not allow services at the funeral home and so if there were religious services for people of those denominations, they could only take place at graveside. Some priests would however meet the family at the funeral home to go together in a procession, and this allowed speaking with the priest in the parking lot prior to the gravesite.

Furthermore, some cemeteries had very strict restrictions. Catholic cemeteries in New Jersey, following the guidelines of the Archdiocese of Newark, only allowed one person per family at the funeral, along with one priest and a funeral director. This created great tension. For example, Basralian said, the police were called to one cemetery because people were argumentative and wanted to go in. These restrictions have recently been relaxed to allow up to 20 people.

Families could not have memorial dinners (hokejash). Basralian said, “All these nice people who died could not have any type of recognition, while their children could not have real closure, with people visiting and consoling them.”

Basralian Funeral Home took measures early to maximize the safety of patrons and staff, though there were not many guidelines provided to the funeral industry until the peak of the crisis. Case said, “I had a feeling when I was watching what was happening in Italy that it was going to be the same here. So I moved all our arrangements to digitalized format.” Prices and types of caskets and various services could all be sent digitally.

Cass said that using digital communications protects both families and the funeral home staff from extra risk of infection. She said, “I think going forward we will be continuing to work with families digitally even after this whole COVID crisis.”

A webcam was installed into the wall of the funeral home so that families could do livestreaming of services, and a few have taken advantage of that, Case said. Some of the cemeteries also have people filming so the video can be sent to family members who could not be present. Some family members used FaceTime themselves to send to other iPhones.

New York

The Edward D. Jamie Jr. Funeral Chapel is headquartered in Bayside, Queens, and handles funerals for the five New York boroughs and Long Island, though the majority of its business is from Queens. Edward D. Jamie Jr. continued in his father Edward Jamie (Jamakordzian)’s profession. Unfortunately, he passed away this May, but his daughter Marissa Jamie, previously a full-time social worker but always involved in the small family-owned business since childhood, has taken over. She said she intends to go back to school to obtain her license. Several other family members are also involved.

Marissa Jamie with her father Edward D. Jamie, Jr. on Christmas day, 2019

Marissa Jamie said that she too saw a big increase in March and a good part of April, with around 85 percent dying of COVID-19. Most of them were over the age of 40 and though some did have other health conditions there were individuals who only died of coronavirus. The percentage of her Armenian clientele is as high as 45 percent, she said.

Jamie said that she did not have to tell anyone even at the peak of the crisis that her firm could not help them. However, two or three times it was necessary to either ask the hospital to keep the body a little longer, or even to pay other funeral homes to hold a body until space opened up.

The death toll has gone down in the New York area and therefore the situation is easier at present for her funeral chapel.

She and her colleagues use additional personal protection equipment as if they were in health care, and always disinfect a body. She noted that a few other funeral directors have been infected with COVID-19, but it still is not clear whether the virus can survive in the deceased, or if so, for how long. Conversations with clients are now being done remotely as a safety precaution.

Jamie pointed out that all the coronavirus restrictions prevent closure for families, who are unable to fully mourn their loved ones in the way they normally would expect. No wakes are allowed in churches and not even private family viewing is allowed in New York City. Consequently, only direct burials or cremations with a service at the grave site are possible. Jamie said usually about 10 people are present, and there is a very strict protocol to follow. Everyone must stay in his car until the cemetery men bring the casket to the graveyard. People get out of their cars for the service, and only after they leave do the cemetery workers return.

Social distancing and the wearing of masks are enforced but this is very difficult. Jamie said, “How do you tell family members not to hug and comfort one another?” Occasionally, though, she saw an uncomfortable family member herself stepping away.

As all services are now closed casket, Jamie said that upon request, which has happened several ties, the funeral home will text a photograph so that the surviving family members are able to see that indeed it is their loved one. At times family members use FaceTime to allow people not physical there to observe the burial. In the future, Jamie said that she will look into providing more electronic means of making services accessible to those who cannot physically be present.

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