Amy Carroll: caring for the dead

Amy Carroll has been a funeral director and embalmer at Serenity Funeral Service just off the 118 Avenue traffic circle by NAIT for the past six years.

Carroll was employed in the machining industry prior to 2014, and when the price of oil fell drastically, job losses were high. She wanted to make some extra income, and a family friend connected her with the funeral home opportunity. She started working part time, liked the job, and wanted to move into it as a career. Serenity agreed to apprentice Carroll.

“I would like to say that the job chose me. I didn’t choose the job. It’s something that you really have to be passionate about. You have to really be a people person, and understand the [grieving] process,” Carroll said. 

The Covid pandemic changed multiple aspects of Carroll’s job. Carroll said, “I think it’s made [the staff] all a lot more anxious. When everything first happened, obviously, rules were changing. Information was changing weekly.” Despite being frontline workers, funeral directors were not getting adequate information with how to safely handle Covid patients who had died. 

“They were saying you can’t contract Covid from a deceased body, but the fact is it’s airborne.” When bodies are moved and manipulated, air is pushed out of the bodies. Carroll said, “We’re trained to handle universal precautions. We have masks and gowns, respirators and gloves.” But the question for Carroll and her coworkers remained: are these precautions enough?

Carroll said, “Our regulatory board thinks of us and they speak for us. But when it came to health care as a whole, we weren’t thought of.”

Like many other industries, from pharmacists who heard about new vaccine rollouts on the news at the same time as the public, to hairdressers who were in the first group to return to work, there was consistent inadequate communication from the Alberta government and Alberta Health Services. Carroll said, “We were left in the dark. Considering we’re end of life—the last responders.”

Like many other industries, from pharmacists who heard about new vaccine rollouts on the news at the same time as the public, to hairdressers who were in the first group to return to work, there was consistent inadequate communication from the Alberta government and Alberta Health Services. Carroll said, “We were left in the dark. Considering we’re end of life—the last responders.”

Fortunately, Carroll felt supported and protected by her management. “Our company supported all of us. They staggered staff at the very beginning so there wasn’t an overabundance of people in the building. We had Plexiglas sheets up to protect us from people coming in. We had masks, gloves; we had all the sanitizing. We have fogging machines, so we’d fog our chapel after every time somebody came in. Within our company, we were very well supported.” She paused, “I can’t really say the same for higher-ups within health care.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, staff were not embalming Covid cases until they knew more about what happened to the body. As the pandemic progressed, they were prepared with additional personal protective equipment. 

When the vaccine rollout program began, funeral service workers were not considered a priority. Carroll said, “They didn’t even think of us. When the vaccines first came out, the president of our board had approached the government. Province-wide, there’s roughly 500 funeral directors. We could have easily vaccinated the entire province of funeral directors. We weren’t even on the list. Weren’t even on the radar.”

“Our board asked if we could be part of the funding net for health-care workers. They said they didn’t have enough money in the budget to include us [in the first round of vaccinations].” She added, “But yet we’re working double shifts and we’re working through everything.” 

Funeral service staff was also concerned about transfer staff who transport deceased people to the funeral home. Carroll’s colleagues stopped going into nursing homes, but contracted transfer staff to transport bodies. “So it’s less risky for us, but more risky for them. Were they on the vaccination list?” Carroll shook her head no. 

The lack of communication was really disappointing. Carroll said, “Nobody’s ever thought of us before. That’s the thing with the funeral industry; you’re supposed to be discreet and quiet and nobody is supposed to know you’re there. So that’s the attitude people have towards us.”

With the lack of clear information provided by the government in every facet of the pandemic, rumours abounded. One rumour making the rounds was that everyone was being marked as a Covid death. “No,” she stated. “A lot of people were coming in with respiratory arrest or something, and a lot of the time the medical certificates that came with them would say ‘possible Covid’ [which was determined with a test that took a few days to process]. “But no, not everybody was coming in as Covid.”

The process of making decisions and planning for a funeral changed for family members. “Prior to Covid, we would be able to have five to 10 people in funeral arrangements.” During the first year of the pandemic, they had to limit it to two people. “This is really hard because if you have somebody pass away and they have a spouse, and they have children, and then they have an executor, which takes precedence over anybody who comes in? Who comes in and is allowed to have their say?”

She emphasized, “I think a lot of people felt that they weren’t able to have their say with what they wanted to happen to their loved one.”

Funeral arrangements were an issue for even those who had pre-arranged their services. Pre-arranged services generally take the burden off of families. “But a lot of families would have their pre-arrangements done for a traditional service. Well, now we can’t have that. You’ve pre-arranged 10 years ago, but now we have to change everything. And a lot of families would have a hard time with that because this isn’t what their loved one wanted.”

Early in the pandemic, funeral services were limited to 10 people, but the restrictions changed regularly from 10 to 50 and back again to 10 attendees. Because families usually did not follow the detailed restriction information, they would come in and want to make arrangements for a 50 person service, and Carroll and her colleagues would have to advise them that the public health changes limited services to 10 people. Carroll empathized with families. “It was hard.” 

“We would get stressed out families if we were following the rules and we would get stressed out families if we weren’t following the rules. So having to tell people that we have to follow Alberta Health guidelines—it took the humanity out of everything.”

Carroll held her arms wide open as she spoke. “A lot of families—they need a hug. They need to just sit and be with each other.” 

“We treat our families like they are our own. So when they come in and you get from them that they need a little bit of compassion and a hug, and we would give it to them, and we couldn’t. We had to sit across the room from them.” This was really difficult for Carroll and her colleagues. “You’re trained to do this. You’re naturally a compassionate person. And all of a sudden, you can’t do any of this. And it makes it feel really business-like, which is not what funeral service is about.”

Carroll said she is a “big advocate for people seeing their loved ones.” She explained, “You don’t have to touch them. You don’t even have to go near [them]. But if you stand back, it makes it real. It takes everything that your mind is imagining and it brings it right into focus. It propels you into that grief. It starts the [grieving] process.”

Carroll knows a lot about the grieving process. She said, “It is so multifaceted. You’ve got the bereavement and then you’ve got to go through your mourning process. Grief lasts a lifetime. It just comes out in different colours.”

With the increased number of deaths, Covid presented challenges to people in the funeral industry. Carroll said, “Nobody realized how hard it was on us. Our company ended up finding us somebody to talk to. People don’t realize, but a lot of us suffer from types of PTSD: the long hours, the emotional trauma coming from all kinds of family members. We take that and we hold it. Thankfully, we were given an outlet because none of us have outlets.”

She said, “We don’t have support groups. Right? EMS has support groups and police have support groups. We don’t have support groups. We have each other. So my co-workers are literally my family. We talk after work, we talk, we go to work early and have coffee. We decompress. If we didn’t have each other, I don’t know what would happen. It would be a disaster.”

At the time of publishing, Alberta had officially lost 5443 people to Covid in just under three years.

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