The Invisible Front Lines: What It’s Like Answering Calls for Funeral Homes Right Now
Apr 27, 2020
“Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the funeral home is at capacity and is unable to handle any new calls at this time.”
The words feel hollow and wrong as they leave my lips, even after having to repeat them over and over again as the day goes on. No matter how much I soften my tone, there is no way easy to share this information. I struggle to adjust to the incongruity between my instincts to provide reassurance against the devastating reality I must communicate to these already broken family members. For 16 years I have answered calls for funeral homes, but I have never imagined a day might come when I might have to tell grieving family members that a funeral home can’t serve them. It is heartbreaking and surreal all at once – and it’s not getting any easier.
ASD answers calls for funeral homes across the nation, but over the course of the past month our staff has handled an influx of calls from New York City and other hot spots that have become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. My heart is aching for the grieving family members forced to call multiple funeral homes, the hospital or nursing home staff who can’t find anyone to pick up a body, and our clients, the funeral directors, who have been completely overwhelmed. Many are working around the clock, even sleeping in their cars, in an effort to respond as quickly as they possibly can to the non-stop incursion of death calls.
The Emotional Toll
When you think about being on the “front lines”, one usually envisions those who are physically responding to the pandemic, but there is also an invisible front line handling the emotional fallout caused by COVID-19. For ASD Call Specialists, the past month has been extremely difficult as we adjust our normal reflexes to provide comfort to grieving callers with fact that we must not give any false assurances or make any promises on behalf of the funeral home.
This pandemic has proved to be a challenging and trying test for all of us answering calls for funeral homes at ASD. Our staff has been forced to adapt to this unprecedented event in ways we never could have imagined before. One Call Specialist described the difficulty of handling a call for a woman who lost both her parents and her brother in 24 hours to COVID-19. Another recalled having to take “sobbing breaks” between calls because of how much they affected her emotionally. While our staff are accustomed to helping families who have lost a loved one on a regular basis,the magnitude of tragedy created by COVID-19 is truly unfathomable. For those who do not work in the funeral profession or do not live in a highly impacted area, it may be difficult to fully understand the trail of devastation this virus leaves behind in its wake. For all of us here at ASD, that reality has been made painfully clear.
In many articles profiling funeral homes in hotspots like the Bronx and Brooklyn, directors discuss how difficult it is to turn away a family in need. This is the first time over 100 years our society has had to grapple with issues like a lack of space to store bodies. This is the first time a surge in deaths has caused month-long delays at cemeteries and crematories. This is the first time funeral directors have been forced to say to a family, “We are unable to serve you right now.”
ASD Call Specialists are right there with our clients because we are often the ones communicating this information on their behalf, listening to the desperation of families who are trying to ensure their loved one is not left in a nursing home or taken to a place like Hart Island. We are hearing and feeling firsthand the devastating emotional toll this virus has taken on bereaved families. Like our clients, we are struggling to cope with the fact that we cannot provide comfort and reassurance in the same manner we once could. The words we are so used to using when responding to someone who is distraught are no longer available to us, so we continue on trying to convey with our tone and our condolences how deeply sorry we are for the unimaginable pain this virus has unfairly inflicted upon them.
Adapting to Call Volume Increases
In addition to the difficult nature of these calls, ASD Call Specialists have also had to adapt to a surge in our company’s call volume. Throughout our history, our answering service has consistently answered 90% of all incoming calls by the first ring on average with less than 1% of callers ever waiting on hold for any length of time. For the past two weeks, however, ASD has sadly handled more than twice as many death calls every day. For a brief period, the increased call volume unfortunately impacted our ability to respond to callers as promptly as we were able to previously.
Our latest call statistics do give us reason to hope the worst is now over. The graph above shows the change in the number of death calls our answering service is handling each day since before Thanksgiving. This graph excludes repeat shopper calls to multiple firms by analyzing Caller ID data, which helps us to get a better picture of how funeral home call statistics have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. You can see the spikes on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Other than those days, you can see there was very little change in the number of death calls handled from day to day until March 19. Then, the number of death calls began to multiply considerably, finally reaching a peak on Easter Weekend.
During the peak days of the pandemic, many families in New York were forced to call multiple funeral homes to find one that could take care of their loved one. When reviewing their call numbers, ASD excluded any death call that was placed to multiple firms by analyzing Caller ID data. This provides a clearer picture of how funeral home call statistics have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Thankfully since around April 14, the increase in the number of death calls has begun to drop, though we are still handling almost 1,000 more death calls each day than we were before mid-March.
In response to the increase in our call volume, ASD’s owners have taken steps to help turn the tide in the other direction and our latest statistics suggest things are slowly starting to normalize. Currently, we have every department within our company focused on answering incoming calls and ASD is actively growing our staff as well. We just welcomed 19 employees to our work force. These new Call Specialists completed our Training Program in-house and upon graduation received a computer they could take home to work remotely.
Just one month ago, there were less than 2,000 deaths attributed to the COVID-19 in the US, now there are over 50,000. According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the latest models are predicting there will be another 25,000 deaths by August. While we are hopeful the worst may be over and are beginning to see the “flattening of the curve”, we know we cannot become complacent when it comes to the seriousness of this virus and how we respond to it. We will continue to adjust and adapt anyway we need to in order to support clients and our staff.
Once things have returned to normal, there will likely be many lessons that can be learned from this period in history. We expect many of the routines and procedures funeral professionals used previously will be reevaluated. For us here at ASD, we plan to explore different solutions we can implement to provide added assistance to our clients during times when they need us the most. ASD could not function without our team of dedicated staff, so we are plan to show our appreciation to our team for their hard work through this pandemic while seeking out different ways we can support them through the emotional challenges they face on the job.
We pray we will not see a pandemic like this anytime again in the future but preparing in advance for such event will only make our company stronger going forward.
About The Author
Jess Farren (Fowler)
Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD's company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com