Source: L.E. Ikenga

Within three hours of me arriving at work, the Director of Housekeeping was already in tears, with all sorts of obscenities spewing from her mouth. The morning nursing supervisor had just demanded that she “find some place” for all of the bodies. She did not want the dead to be left in the rooms. “Where the f*** does she want me to put all these people? That’s Margret in one of those rooms. She was my friend. I’m not going to dump her body in the stinking basement — I’m not doing it. They can fire me. I don’t care.”

Taking out the dead (YouTube screen grab, cropped)

More than 15 residents had died within the last 48 hours at the 150-bed skilled nursing facility. Because of the rate at which the patients were dying, when I got to work there was nowhere to put me. All of the nurses and ancillary staff were already in place. I worked on call throughout the city and was a last-minute addition to what had initially been an urgent staffing request. Now, I was being told to stay downstairs to organize paperwork, take temperatures, and distribute face masks to everyone coming in. I was thankful for the break, knowing that there would be less confusion in the lobby than on the medical units. I was wrong.

Family members, many of whom where not allowed past the lobby, kept streaming in and out. They were panicked, angry, and wanted to know what was going on. The mailman was refusing to have his temperature taken; food delivery persons who spoke little to no English didn’t understand what I needed them to do; pairs of first responders were sprinting in and out with gurneys and oxygen tanks. They moved fast. A few of them barely giving me time to point the forehead thermometer for a reading.

And then there was the young man, probably in his early twenties, who was telling me that he’d come to see a doctor. I had to explain to him that he was at a nursing home. It took me and two other staff members to figure out that he had come to see his aunt, who was complaining that it been a few days since she saw her doctor. She was feeling very sick and didn’t know what to do. The young man was an American but completely inarticulate. It also took him a full fifteen minutes to fill out the simple questionnaire with his name, contact number, and the four “Yes” or “No” questions concerning probable exposure to COVID-19. Having once run a liberal arts homeschool co-op for inner city boys, this sort of thing still bothered me. I helped him fill out the form, while listening to what was going on with the Director of Housekeeping.

That’s when I saw that a man dressed in a black suit and tie had been waiting a few feet from my makeshift desk. I never even heard the sliding doors open, so I didn’t notice him.

“May I help you sir?” “

Yes, my name is Dan Mongelluzzo. I’m the mortician.”

Our phone conversation a few days later was lively and informative. I was intrigued. On Saturday, April 4th, while watching him load a body bag into the company hearse, I asked him if I could interview him. It was a windy day, his hair was flying all over the place, and he was rushing to get into the car, but he was attentive. He agreed to a Monday interview, so I scribbled his number on the back of one of the COVID forms in my pocket and ran back inside. He told me to call him at 5:00 o’clock.

For many New Yorkers especially, 9/11 is still a fresh and devastating memory. It seemed logical for me to jump to the conclusion that for an undertaker, this pandemic was comparable. But he corrected me. “Oh, no, no. What’s going on now is nothing like September 11th. You have to understand on that day many bodies were instantly incinerated. People weren’t being rescued.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

“On 9/11 and on the days and months that followed, we were getting body fragments — a finger, part of a leg, but rarely a full body. Sometimes pieces from the same person were found over the course of a few months. With my industry, in those days there was a lot of good will — I mean how many times can you charge a family for a service when something new has been discovered?” The funeral homes ended up doing a good deal for free. That was a terrible time, but it’s nothing like this.” Dan said that this pandemic was more like the AIDS crisis of the 80’s and 90’s. He told me that “the daily volume is about the same.”

His mid-sized funeral home, located in Astoria, Queens was at full capacity. The smaller ones had been at capacity weeks ago. The morgues in some of the other boroughs were also all full. The death rate and fear of exposure to the disease was making embalming impossible. Caskets were being sealed immediately and labeled as hazardous. Even the gravediggers were afraid. I was surprised to hear that many wanted their dead loved ones dispensed with immediately. Deciding to lie about the death of a family member during this crisis was increasingly becoming the norm. People didn’t want to burden relatives with anymore pain and suffering. Job and business losses, an ever-changing science about how to protect oneself from the infectious disease, and the strain of having school-aged children at home with no end in sight was taking a toll. Best not to say anything to family members who wouldn’t be able to show up for a funeral anyway. The occasional wake was still happening but with limitations. No more than 10 people were allowed to view a body.

The mortician spoke authoritatively and jubilantly about his industry. He loved what he did. An accountant by first trade, he fell into the profession because of a brief stint cleaning funeral homes while attending St. John’s College. After graduating with his first degree, he found that he hated sitting at a desk, saying that today he would probably be “diagnosed” with some form of attention-deficit-disorder. So, he became a mortician. But because his love for math remained, he also became a teacher after receiving a master’s degree in 2004. During the day, Dan Mongelluzzo teaches high school algebra and geometry at a Catholic school on Long Island. A high school teacher by day and an undertaker by night. It’s a strange professional juxtaposition, which is perhaps why we immediately hit it off. He is very upset about all of the class time that his students are missing because of the pandemic.

“Long distance learning via Google classroom is not a good option. A lot of my students need extra coaching. They need me there in front of them, in the flesh.”

I pressed him about what was going on at the local crematoriums. We had begun that part of the conversation on Saturday. He stated that they too were at full capacity. The appointments were all backlogged. On average, it was now taking more than one week to have a corpse cremated. I worried that for religious reasons, people’s last wishes to not be burned were being ignored for public health reasons.

“You know, with the exception of the Jewish faith—they prepare and bury the body immediately—there are no hard and fast rules anymore. The pandemic has nothing to do with that though. This has been happening for some time.”

He said that in terms of the Christians, the Greek Orthodox were the last holdouts. I sighed. “What about our Creed? What about the Resurrection?” He chuckled. “Oh, with us Catholics, whenever I throw that bombshell during a family meeting it’s always the same. At first, most people seem genuinely concerned and perplexed, but then they end up cremating anyway. It is only after that they realize that they don’t even know what to do with the ashes. The calls start coming again.”

There are two things that Dan misses the most because of the virus. The artistry involved in the “revitalization of the body,” and getting to spend quality time with the families as they grieve. “I’m a full-service undertaker, not one of these ‘primary arrangers’ who only deals with the initial phone calls. I’ve never had the patience for partial involvement. I need to do it all—transport, transformation, and funeral direction. That’s how I make a connection with the family and the deceased person. When a son or a daughter says, ‘for a moment, you gave me my mom back. That’s how she looked when we were growing up!’, it makes all the difference. In the end, that’s why I do what I do.”