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The Final Care Workers
The last responders who give dignity to the dead
This Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your comments on “What Can You Pour from an Empty Cup.” This week I want to talk about the final kind of care work we can receive from others.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned our attention to places and people we usually overlooked. (I wrote a piece on this theme for Comment). It’s been a time where it’s much clearer how much we all depend on care work, waged or unwaged. Care for the elderly, care for children, care for workers—care work is what lubricates the gears of our society. And it’s easy to ignore until, suddenly, it’s not there when you need it.
One form of care work has stood out in sharper relief to me: care for the dead. A few years ago, I read Judy Melinek’s memoir of her time as a NYC medical examiner, Working Stiff. I was caught off guard by her chapter on working in the emergency morgues on 9/11 to reconstruct and identify victims. I started crying on the subway.
The pandemic has made care for the dead newsworthy again, and I’m struck by the tenderness inherent to the work. I can’t forget the detail from one early article about the refrigerated morgue trucks in NYC that mentioned that one of the workers bought flowers so she could lay a bright, yellow bloom on each body bag.
Almost no one in the city will have any idea the Covid morgue exists. The work is carried out in strict secrecy; staffers are instructed not to disclose the site’s location or tell anyone what takes place there, not even their own family members. A mistake—such as a body being released to the wrong family—would be humiliating for the mayor and the city. News footage of workers moving the dead could upset victims’ families, opening new wounds, or lure gawkers to the site. As much as anything else, though, the silence reflects the professional ethos of those who perform this work for a living. While they’re dispatched to every hurricane and school shooting, their efforts take place entirely behind the scenes. They are the first responders you never see.
“There’s not going to be a parade for you guys,” Harvin tells each new set of workers to arrive at the Covid morgue. “You’re not going to get discounts or big [thank-you] signs. The work we do, we do in silence. Not even the family members of the victims will know what we do. There’s a pride in that. There’s a silent pride in that,” he says. “You’re taking care of someone’s grandmother, grandfather, husband, daughter, son, and that’s a higher calling.” When it’s all over, they’ll return to their previous jobs or assignments and no one will ever know what they’ve done here.
A few years ago, I had to think a little more concretely about what I wanted done if I passed away (I’m fine now). As much as I appreciated the work of morticians, I wanted to be cared for by my husband. I’d read about home funerals and more traditional approaches to preparing a body for burial.
For the most part, washing and dressing a body for burial has become professionalized. It’s an unusual and countercultural choice to do what people have done for most of history—to have the last hands to handle you belong to someone who knew you.
Have you ever taken on this form of care work, tending to a loved one after death?
Have you made choices about who you want to care for you?
On a different covid-related topic, I’ve written a piece for The Week on the way our pandemic response has focused too much on individual choice, and not enough on systemic solutions.