Aram Bedrosian Funeral Home

Boston and Detroit Armenian Funeral Homes Shoulder Their Heavy Burden

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WATERTOWN — Massachusetts, after New York and New Jersey, has had the highest number of deaths due to the novel coronavirus. That naturally has had an impact on the two Armenian-owned funeral homes in Watertown, which have faced a stressful situation only somewhat less difficult than that of the New York and New Jersey funeral homes (https://mirrorspectator.com/2020/06/04/armenian-funeral-homes-in-new-york-and-new-jersey-overwhelmed-by-covid-19-crisis/).

Paul Bedrosian of the Aram Bedrosian Funeral Home, a family business started by his parents in 1946, said that greater than 90 percent of the clients are Armenians. The remainder are families of people married to an Armenian, referred by Armenians friends or friends of the Bedrosians personally.

He described the situation over the last few months as “definitely drastically more people passing away.” At its peak in April, there were 25 funerals, whereas he said, normally, the funeral home would handle 8 or 10. It slowed down in May.

Bedrosian said that even back in January, there were a few deaths which listed pneumonia or respiratory problems as the cause, which he now suspects could have been due to COVID-19. After seeing confirmed COVID-19 victims over time, he said he noticed the following: “Our results are a little bit compromised as far as the circulation to the extremities is concerned. We can usually tell from the hands or feet, sometimes in the facial area, where they might be a little more pink tone, or blemish, than there normally would be. It suggests the virus is present.”

Guidelines in Massachusetts were changing and unclear in March. Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston announced that Catholic churches would allow funeral masses with up to 25 people, but the limitation on participants was being abused. The cardinal then decided not to accommodate funeral masses but only conduct prayers at the cemetery. The Armenian Church decided to close and only do graveside prayers, though some priests might come to the funeral home before going to the cemetery. The Greek Orthodox Church decided not to close but to limit gatherings to 10 people.

By the weekend of March 21-22, President Donald Trump was talking about lowering the national limit on gatherings to 10 people but was leaving the actual decision to individual states. Sometime around 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 22, Bedrosian called his state senator,

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William Brownsberger. Bedrosian said, “I was fortunate that I reached him. I identified myself and said we need some guidance from [Massachusetts] Governor Charlie Baker’s office, since the guidelines keep changing.”

Brownsberger’s first reaction was that there should be no visitations allowed at all, but Bedrosian explained to him why they were important to families. Bedrosian then said that he thought the numbers allowed should be lowered from 25 to 10, but that the funeral homes don’t want to sound insensitive to families who have just lost loved ones, so this decision must be taken by the governor’s office.

After talking about this for around half an hour, according to Bedrosian, Brownsberger said that he appreciated the call and that Bedrosian had won him over. He said he had not realized the nature of the situation and would talk with the governor the next day, Monday. In fact, he did speak with the governor, and perhaps this contributed to the governor’s new mandates limiting gatherings to 10 people, which went into effect on March 24.

The transition was awkward. Bedrosian had a visitation in his funeral home on the night of March 24 and the family had invited 25 people. He had to call and tell the family that the guidelines had changed, forcing them to reduce the number of those invited.

Bedrosian was appreciative of what Brownsberger did, saying, “Thank God Brownsberger went to bat for us. I appreciate what he did for our profession.”

Even now, there is no guaranteed way to know if someone has died of COVID. Bedrosian pointed out that though the ability exists to test for the virus after someone passes away, there are not enough resources available to do so at present. Consequently, like other funeral homes, he assumes that every burial is of a person who had the virus, and wears face guards, face masks and smocks.

For the funeral home visitation, Bedrosian took some precautionary steps, such as removing the customary guest book so there is no possibility of people touching the same pen or book. He took away the kneeler in front of the casket so there is no common place to kneel.

Nonetheless, under the current circumstances, Bedrosian said, “I am fearful for myself too. I am 72 years old and like any first line responder, I am in harm’s way. But it is what it is.” After the disinfecting and embalming, however, there is no danger from the body.

Visitations are open casket still and Bedrosian said that most of the families he deals with want to see their loved ones. However, there have been some who out of anxiety preferred just to go directly to the cemetery. Bedrosian said that for most of them, he would take a picture of the loved one dressed up and send it so they could have that memory.

Cemetery visitations include the priest and Bedrosian, so usually only up to 8 family members can come. Bedrosian said, “It is such a sensitive thing, grief. You want people to be able to say goodbye to their loved ones. Many had been shut out of the nursing homes, and their only opportunity is at the funeral homes, but it is limited. These are very sad times.”

Bedrosian reflected about the bigger picture. He said, “There is a lot of stress in general. People are financially in a difficult way. The family unit is a little different. A husband or wife used to go to work but now is staying at home. I have some friends who say, I can’t do it. Every other day I go to Home Depot. I have to get out.”

He added, “what is disturbing to me is that I watch a lot of news reports and see people throughout the country not wearing masks. What is wrong with people?”

Giragosian Funeral Home

The Giragosian Funeral Home in Watertown has deep Armenian community roots, just like the Bedrosian Home. James Giragosian took over the Charles Mardirosian Funeral Home, which was established in 1932, in 1979. James’ son, Mark, said that 80-90 percent of their burials were Armenians.

Mark Giragosian, like Bedrosian, said that the number of burials increased dramatically in April, perhaps even tripling, while they slowed down in May. In April and May, a good majority of the calls were deaths due to COVID-19. A large number were elderly, but were in good shape before the virus. He said, “That has been the most astonishing thing to me: how many people died in such a short period of time. Their deaths were accelerated. It was like somebody stepped on a gas pedal.”

The situation at the Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica Plain, Mass., was one of the things that was most difficult for Giragosian to experience. His greatest fear, he said, had been that it might get hit by the coronavirus.

He said, “We had Easter, and it was a beautiful holiday even though not in a church, but Easter night I got my first call to go to the nursing home. I do all my own personal removals, as we call them. I had been to the Armenian nursing home many, many times over the course of my life, but I never saw it like this. All the nurses wearing full hazmat suits and the COVID unit was isolated and sealed off. It was a scary place. Easter was April 12. I went back again many times. Bedrosian probably went there several times. That week after Easter we lost so many residents.” He concluded that this was a week, or several weeks, that he would like to forget. “It was a very hard experience,” he added.

Giragosian and Bedrosian did not have to turn people away even in April, unlike many funeral homes in New Jersey and New York. Giragosian said, “We got lucky.” Crematoriums were able to keep up with the workload, again unlike in those places.

Giragosian was extremely cautious, using all protective equipment, like Bedrosian, including suits, masks and shields, when going into places like nursing homes, and taking extreme precautions during the embalming process since even now, no one knows definitively whether the virus can continue to survive in the corpse. Giragosian said that with a young child, and his wife pregnant, he certainly did not want to bring any disease home. He said, “The risk is certainly there, but we had to take it. It was part of what we needed to do to help these families. It continues to be a tough situation, as we just don’t know how the virus spreads. We hear different things every day.”

Like Bedrosian, Giragosian bewailed the curtailment of the mourning process due to the virus, with no church services and limited visitation. He said, “It was dramatically altered. It was really weird being at these [cemetery] services, when even among the immediate family, there were no embraces or hugs.”

He saw the pain on the faces of the family members when their mother or father had to die alone and goodbyes had to be said via Facetime. Consequently, even if in a casket, the time for a widow to see her husband a last time was very, very important, he stressed.

Most people, he said, were understanding of the limitations on participants at the cemetery services. Giragosian said, “It was a very difficult period of time. We took care of what we need to. Surviving relatives plan to have more of a celebration of life once restrictions are lifted. This is unprecedented territory for all of us, even the long-time directors like my father.”

He hoped, he said, that this would not become the new normal, because the public opportunities for people to grieve together are very important. He said, “They need the support of their friends and community when they lose somebody. I hope we can start bringing people back to church and having wakes again.”

He speculated: “It is hard to say what is going to happen. People are going to be apprehensive even if we are able to have public gatherings in church or in the funeral home with wakes. People are wearing masks now when they come to see us and a lot of people don’t even want to come in and sit with us. They handle funeral arrangements through the phone or email. We will be seeing masks for quite some time even if we move toward normal and have services more public. It is weird. Are we never going to be able to shake hands again or embrace? The virus will never go away. The flu didn’t. Will it continue to affect our lives in the same way?”

Detroit Funeral Homes

Michigan, including the metropolitan Detroit area, has had the fifth largest number of deaths from COVID-19 in the US, and during earlier months was higher on this list. It has two Armenian-owned funeral homes, and as would be expected, they faced a heavy burden, though their situation was a little less difficult than in New York or Boston.

Simon Javizian Funeral Directors is a firm established by Simon Javizian in 1952. His wife helped in the business, and eventually, his son Semon joined too, though he moved to Florida. Simon said that the firm has three funeral homes and that while most of the people who call him are Armenian his firm also works with many non-Armenians.

Simon Javizian

Javizian said, “We have noticed a big change since it [COVID-19] occurred. Let me say that we don’t know exactly how many virus cases we have had. Many times—almost always—when we go to a hospital to make the removal of a body, they do not tell us that this person died of this or that disease because of privacy rules. We have to assume that it is a virus disease and protect ourselves accordingly until the death certificate arrives, and that might take several days…The doctor might then have put the cause of death as a heart attack whereas the virus may have caused it.”

He estimated that deaths have gone up approximately 30 percent because of the virus. Interestingly, he estimated that Armenians were dying in smaller numbers than non-Armenians among his funeral homes, and that, he thought, might be due to the better socioeconomic condition of Armenians in the Detroit area compared with the majority of the population.

The numbers of deaths only began to slow, he said, in the last few weeks, but still were higher than ordinary. The funeral homes were able to handle the number of cases that came in, but at the peak of the disease, the hospitals and the medical examiners’ morgues experiencing great difficulties, and cemeteries and crematories were so busy, he said, that they had to wait and line up to be told what day and time they could come.

Javizian said, “We had more bodies in storage in our funeral homes than ever before, but because we were not having visitations or funerals, we had the extra space to keep those bodies. One of our cemeteries had a three-week delay so we had to keep a body for almost three weeks.”

As in many other places, his funeral homes try to do most arrangements via telephone or Internet instead of in person in order to practice safe social distancing, and only immediate family are allowed to see the body prior to burial. Javizian said that the maximum permitted in 10, but his firm tries to keep it down to 3.

Some cemeteries also only allow 3 immediate family members, and each one has its own rules. Others allow no more than ten, and they too make their arrangements via phone or Internet. If a family has to go buy a grave, they can’t go into the cemetery office. An employee will go out of the building and deal with the family members through the car window. To see the grave, they have to follow the cemetery attendant in their own car.

As a result of these complications, Javizian said that more cremations are being done now than burials. The only thing usually the family has to do is when they decide on the final disposition of the remains, so contact of the families with bodies is even less than in cases of burials, where families usually have immediate burial and go to the cemetery.

The biggest change for most people, he said, is the inability to have a funeral service, and priests may or may not be able to be present at the immediate burials. To allow more people to follow the burial ceremony, the firm provides Internet viewing as a courtesy, though at times also individuals present use their own cellphones and say they will do it.

Javizian noted that he happened to be in Florida at present, where he is also licensed and arranges funerals in various areas. He stated, “Fortunately the Armenians here haven’t been touched by the virus in the same degree as other states have.” This is Javizian’s 68th year in the business and his wife passed away 11 years ago. He concluded that despite the stress at present, “I believe in what we do and as a result I will continue doing it as long as the good lord continues to give me my health.

From left, Christopher, Yvonne and Edward Korkoian

Christopher Korkoian provided more information about the coronavirus situation among the Armenians in Detroit. The Edward Korkoian Funeral Home, like most of the other Armenian-owned homes, has been a family business. It was started by Edward B. Korkoian in 1949 and continued by his son Edward H. Korkoian, who continues to work, while Christopher, the latter’s son, joined the business in 1995 and received his license in 1999. The wives of the first two generations also joined in the business.

Christopher Korkoian said that the primary location, in Royal Oak, had roughly 70 percent Armenian clientele, while a second location did not deal with Armenians in general. He said that his father wants to continue in working in part because “our business now is dealing with people he has grown up with or people that were older than him as he was growing up. He still wants to be present and support his community and family.”

The COVID-19 crisis began in March, in Michigan, and the heaviest month was April, Korkoian said, while even in May the numbers were still too high for comfort. As for the number of deaths compared to ordinary years, Korkoian said they were “just a little more, to be honest.” However, the age group has been a bit younger, with more in the 50- to 60-year-old range than usual. He said that the majority of the people had other health-related issues, but he thought the virus made their demise earlier than expected.

Korkoian suspected that the international border with Canada may have been one reason why Michigan was hit fairly hard compared to other parts of the US. Like Javizian, Korkoian thought that Armenians might have been affected a little less than the general population.

The Korkoian funeral homes did not have to turn anyone away, but like all other firms, did make changes in operations. First and foremost, Korkoian said, unless a family preferred to meet face-to-face, they tried to do everything remotely, via phone or Internet, including Zoom.

Secondly, St. John Armenian Church in Southfield, Michigan, along with all Diocesan churches, did not allow funeral services inside the sanctuary, though St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church in Dearborn, Michigan did allow funerals with only a small number of immediate family members. Not all took advantage of the latter’s possibility, however.

The Armenian Congregational Church of Southfield also did not allow services in the church. Saint Vartan Armenian Catholic Church in Bloomfield Hills, did not have any deaths of parishioners in this period, according to Fr. Andon Atamian.

The state of Michigan throughout the crisis only allowed a maximum of 10 people present at a funeral gathering, including priest and deacon, so many families chose not to have visitations or dan gark religious services the night before as a result, Korkoian said. If 10 people were in the funeral home and another one arrived, he would have to wait for one of those present to leave the funeral home first before he could enter.

In general, Korkoian said, Armenians had a prayer service at the grave. Those cremated could be buried, but some families preferred to keep the remains until restrictions will be lifted for a public gathering sometime in the future, he explained.

Cemeteries each have their own restrictions in terms of how many can be present at the grave. Some do not allow approaching the grave until the burial is complete and the cemetery employees have left, said Korkoian.

Despite all the restrictions, Korkoian said that families have been very understanding concerning what the funeral homes, churches and cemeteries can do.

Korkoian confessed, “I too am concerned about getting sick, not just from those who have passed away but also from people you are coming into contact with…In this line of work, you work hard because you have to get things in order before you have the visitation, before the funeral and before the burial. You do have moments of stress because you might be on time constraint. … but since all this has been happening I would say the mental stress is more intense because of the fear that it is out there, and it does not discriminate against anyone, whatever age or sex one might be.”

Like all other funeral directors, he worried about the lack of closures for families not fully allowed public grieving but understood, he said, that “first and foremost we have to be concerned with the health of our city, county, state and country, and the world.”

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