WOODLAND PARK, N.J. – Three bodies lie in caskets, hidden. One casket is brown. One is maroon and the other lavender. They sit in a room where the walls are painted green and the lights are off, where no one can see them.
In the next room, 10 people cry. They mourn a 59-year-old man lying in a powder-blue coffin.
The mourners know that this man — their husband, uncle, brother — spent 27 days on a respirator before he died of COVID-19.
The mourners know nothing about the others. The three caskets in the parlor. Three bodies on tables in the basement. Three more tucked into white cardboard boxes in the cool shadows of the garage. Six boxes of cremated remains stacked on a shelf in the office. Seven others, newly dead, lie in hospital morgues and refrigerator trucks.
“I can’t pick up all seven today because I really don’t have nowhere to put them,” says Madonna, proprietor of the Madonna Multinational Home for Funerals in Passaic.
Only Madonna knows where all those bodies are.
All were killed by COVID-19.
Each must wait its turn.
The pandemic has transformed Madonna’s sleepy funeral home into a kind of funeral factory. Sometimes, she can hide the strain.
Sometimes she cannot.
“Families only get 30 minutes to see their loved ones. They don’t like that,” Madonna whispers to a visitor. “But I have to keep it moving.”
Then she walks into the room of mourning people.
“OK, everybody,” she says. Her voice is soothing and commanding at the same time. “It’s time for us to be on our way to the cemetery.”
The death crisis
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the country, in North Jersey the health crisis has become a death crisis. Hospitals, government agencies and some funeral homes have resorted to the unthinkable, using refrigerator trucks to cool the dead.
Refrigeration is needed because funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries cannot handle so many bodies at once, said George Kelder, executive director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association. There are 24 crematories and about 600 funeral homes in New Jersey, plus 500 or so cemeteries with space to accept new graves, said Judy Welshons, executive director of the New Jersey Cemetery Association.
The system is designed to handle about 6,100 bodies a month, Kelder said. Due to COVID-19, this month New Jersey will process nearly 13,000 bodies.
“Funeral homes are taxed. They’re at capacity,” Kelder said. “Funeral directors are just trying to keep everything moving.”
In normal times, morticians try to project a steadying calm. The pandemic can render that calm impossible. Funeral directors still try to be supportive to people in mourning. But the crush of work leaves little time for diplomacy.
“The whole grief process is short-circuited,” Welshons said. “We have to think of victims of this disease as tasks that we have to accomplish.”
Madonna describes herself as a “small guy” in the industry. Her funeral home occupies a sprawling white house near downtown Passaic. In a normal month, Madonna buries 10 or 12 people.
Most of the families she serves are poor. More than 60% rely on Medicaid, which caps reimbursements at $2,246 per funeral. Most are Latino or African-American. Most live in the dense cities of Passaic or Paterson. Many work for retail stores, or fast-food or delivery companies; many of the elderly live in nursing homes. Each of these factors elevates a person’s risk of dying from COVID-19.
This month, Madonna is on track to bury 152 people.
“I’ve been rolling like a river,” said the funeral director, who changed her legal name to Madonna in the 1990s, after her second divorce. “I literally had to take my phone off the hook to get some sleep.”
People come to a funeral home to mourn someone they know, a person who was unique and important in their lives. They do not want to see the bodies of strangers, people who were unique and important to someone else. Thus bodies must be retrieved, embalmed, dressed and displayed only to the right group of mourners, hidden from everyone else.
In normal times, this game of selective hiding and revealing is easy to accomplish.
COVID-19 makes it harder. Madonna’s funeral home now functions like a three-dimensional chess board. Every decision she makes — which clothes to wear, which door to lock, which body to embalm — must whittle away at her overwhelming workload, while disguising that work from public view.
“I have a limited staff, and pretty soon I’ll be 67 myself. I’m not a young chippy no more,” said Madonna, who has owned the funeral home for 35 years. “But I know how to move ’em along.”
Full morgues, locked doors
Somewhere on the campus of St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic, the body of an elderly woman was stored in a refrigerated truck. Last Wednesday, the woman’s three adult children arrived at the back door of Madonna’s funeral home and rang the bell.
“Don’t answer the door!” Madonna shouted to her assistant. “Find out what they want before you let ’em in!”
Madonna stood in the basement, in a room covered in green tile. Wearing a blue plastic gown tied around a stained green work coat, she was about to embalm a body.
“We don’t let nobody in,” she said, “because we have to be dressed up.”
Madonna’s friend and assistant Vivian Johnson called downstairs that the visitors hoped to plan a funeral within the week. Madonna made a little grunting sound. She stripped off her gown and coat to reveal a maroon sweater sewn with gold sequins. She climbed the stairs.
Leading the family into her office, Madonna spoke frankly of the deceased.
“Let her stay where she is, because she’s in refrigeration. I’ve got no space for her,” she said to the mourners. “You’ve got to give me some time, baby. A little bit of patience. OK? It’s a very busy time.”
When the family left, Madonna joined Johnson in the front parlor. They wheeled the brown, maroon and lavender caskets deep into the room, then turned out the lights.
“We gotta move these caskets out of sight,” she said. “We have these bodies in here, and we don’t want people to see that.”
At 12:28 p.m., another grieving family arrived on the front porch. Johnson yelled for them to use the back door, not mentioning that the front door stayed locked to hide three bodies in caskets.
In compliance with state rules about public gatherings, only 10 family members were allowed in. The rest stood in the parking lot. One of them called Madonna, asking whether the funeral home would broadcast the service online.
“No, if you want Facebook Live, the family has to do that,” Madonna said.
At 1:45 p.m., Madonna drove her white hearse through the main gate at East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton. Here, too, dozens of mourners were forced by state rules to wait outside. Tempers flared. Inside the gate stood a cemetery employee, standing guard. Some mourners upbraided him. They wanted in. Coarse words were yelled.
Fifty yards away, Madonna plucked eight blue and yellow flowers from bouquets laid by the grave. She handed one to each of the mourners standing nearby. The people hugged and cried. They returned to their cars, their steps wobbly on the grass.
By 2:15 p.m., Madonna returned to the funeral home in time to receive a delivery: two more bodies. One, encased in a cardboard box, was wheeled into the garage. The other came wrapped in a purple quilt.
“We just keep rolling,” she said.
Follow Christopher Maag on Twitter: @Chris_Maag