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Heroes on the front lines. . . . not only in 2020

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I was visiting on the phone with the CEO of one of the funeral home consolidation companies on Friday when he asked me how long I had been out of direct management of our business.  I replied that it is just over seven years and I was happy not to have been there during the past year especially when I saw the saw the crushing workload and the sense of funeral directors having to be the “emotional rock” that families counted on during COVID-19 deaths.

He responded to me that yes, there is no doubt that the front-line workers in funeral service.  . those funeral directors, embalmers and the rest of funeral home and cemetery staffs were indeed one of America’s shining stars during the pandemic, yet their work has gone virtually unnoticed by the American public.

In Minnesota alone, we had 5,322 deaths due to COVID-19 in 2020, with the first reported death being on March 21, 2020.  I know, from being a front-line funeral director for over 30 years, that those arrangement conferences with families would be stressful on funeral directors because those deaths were, in almost all cases, deaths to loved ones.  Loved ones that people did not think would be gone thirty days prior.  And, funeral directors have had experience with those types of “more sudden” deaths over the years with accidents, suicides, and drug causes and know the stress that it bears on them.

It’s interesting because at about the same time I was having this discussion with the CEO, I received an email from the Minnesota Department of Health (MNDOH) that, I believe was sent to all funeral directors in their data base.  It made me think, while the American public has not noticed how front-line funeral directors have had incredible stress over COVID-19 deaths, maybe the MNDOH has noticed.  The correspondence from MNDOH had two small packets linked entitled:

  1. Difficult Conversations:  Addressing Deaths Due to Suicide
  2. Difficult Conversations:  Addressing Deaths Due to Drug Overdose.

Finally, just the day prior, I had read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that you can read here, about a higher number of alcohol related deaths in Minnesota during 2020 tied to the pandemic.

The packets and the newspaper article were timely with the conversation about America’s front-line mortuary staff workers.  Here’s what the information pointed out to me about deaths from these causes and the function and importance of America’s funeral profession workers.

Suicide — Suicide deaths in Minnesota have increased 79% since 1999 to where we now had 745 in the latest year of statistics.  There has been an increase in the rate of suicide in every racial group from 2009 to 2018.

Opioid Overdose Deaths—  Opioid overdose deaths have increased 535% from 2010 to 2018 in Minnesota with the last year’s number being 636 deaths.  The guide points out “The impact of substance use disorder extends beyond individuals, impacting families, friends, businesses and communities. Substance use and overdose affects many Minnesotans. . . . .In their work, funeral directors have seen the ravaging effects of substance use and overdose on their communities. . . As funeral directors are among the first to have conversations with families following the loss of a love one to an overdose death, they are in a unique position to play a vital role in prevention work. “

Alcohol — Deaths have increased nearly threefold since 2000 according to the aforementioned article.  The article also states, “Deaths from alcohol use in 2020 were similar in numbers to recent years — until June. That’s when the rate started to accelerate.”  In total, Minnesota had 992 people die from alcohol related causes in 2020.

Here is where I am going with this. . . . . yes, I agree with the CEO I talked to, America’s front-line funeral professionals play a vital and very much unsung role in our nation’s response to COVID-19 mortality.  However, if you add up those latest Minnesota deaths from Suicide, Opioid overdose, and alcohol, you will total 2,373 annual deaths. . . . and that’s 44.6% of the total deaths (5,322) due to COVID-19 in Minnesota last year. . . . and that is not a one-year pandemic. . . . it is each and every year. . . and growing in numbers every year.

If there are similar statistics in other states, I agree that those workers played a big role in 2020, but I also think they play a big role every year in dealing with traumatic and stressful deaths that rock the emotional stability of survivor mental health.  When you really think about it, there may be no other role in society that has the opportunity to visit with those that are really suffering and hurting at this emotional time, than our nation’s death care professionals.

Take that as a stressful employment status, but also take it as a challenge on how each and every death care professional has an opportunity to help families heal.  It’s an enormous job. . . . but I think funeral professionals are up to the task!!!

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