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疫情時期,殯葬業超負荷運轉

疫情時期,殯葬業超負荷運轉

Kat Eschner 2021年08月12日
新冠疫情期間發生的大規模死亡改變了殯葬行業的未來估值。

去年,美國的死亡人數超過335萬人,遠遠超出了殯葬業的正常處理負荷。最近的一項分析發現,超過70%的額外死亡是由新冠病毒引起的。其他的額外死亡案例則與新冠疫情引發的紛亂有關,有些完全死于偶然因素。在全美各地的疫情重災區,殯儀館、墓地和火葬場都面臨著前所未有的運轉壓力。畢竟,該國的殯葬業系統往往只能夠應對可以預見的死亡人數(在像2019年這樣的正常年份,死亡人數約為280萬),而2020年它則要應對顯著增加的死者。

紐約州殯葬承辦人協會(New York State Funeral Directors Association)的執行董事邁克?拉諾特說,在紐約這一早期的新冠疫情重災區,“疫情讓人覺得是‘壓倒性的’、‘十分緊張的’。”拉諾特指出,正常時期,紐約州每天大約有400人死亡。這就是該州的殯儀館、火葬場和公墓所能夠應對的死亡人數。有時候,異常糟糕的流感季節會導致當地的死亡人數激增,但紐約州和其他地方的殯葬系統已經被證明具有相當的彈性。

在紐約和新澤西,疫情頭幾個月的情況并非如此。拉諾特稱,他的協會成員和鄰近州的同行都被激增的殯葬服務需求壓得喘不過氣來。“這種情況大概一直持續到2020年夏初,之后殯葬服務需求才真正開始回落到一個系統可以跟得上的水平。”他說道。

紐約疫情爆發期間,路上存放尸體的冷藏卡車成為了許多美國人對疫情初期的印象,也勾起了人們對“9?11”事件的回憶。那是當地殯葬行業上一次因為災難而承受過大負荷的時候。但在整個2020年,全美各地的死亡人數都出現飆升,殯葬服務專業人員的工作負荷隨之達到極限。

殯葬服務人員鮮少被提及。“有需要的時候,你需要他們的幫助。”北美火葬協會(Cremation Association of North America)的執行董事芭芭拉?凱米斯表示。“但是,我們協會的葬禮和墓地從業人員以及火葬場所有者卻從未被列在任何能夠看見的致謝急救人員的名單上。”她說,這個行當的人都明白自己的角色,但過去一年他們在前線的工作真的非常艱難。

現在,受更危險的變異毒株和疫苗接種率低的影響,美國各地的新冠肺炎病例再次出現激增。美國的疫情還遠未結束。但是,由于治療和控制新冠病毒的知識增進,再加上疫苗接種的鋪展,殯葬服務業不會面臨像去年那樣全美普遍的洶涌需求。自從開始評估行業狀況以來,殯葬行業領導者和擁護者均稱他們的行業因為疫情已經發生了不可逆轉的改變。

快速的技術變革、火葬的增加,以及不得不應對巨大的死亡人數的壓力,致使從業人員普遍出現職業倦怠,許多人離開了這個行業。提供殯葬藝術與科學課程的約翰?古普頓學院(John A. Gupton College)的院長史蒂夫?斯潘指出,去年該行業的營收也出現了下滑,因為種種防疫限制措施使得葬禮無法如常進行。他說:“我想,所有的殯儀館都會認定,它們在財務上受到了相當大的打擊。”據他估計,它們的收入下降了20%至30%。

從短期來看,這意味著這個行業將缺乏人手。從中期來看,這可能意味著本來已經被高度整合的殯葬行業將進一步整合,一些為黑人群體等特定社區服務的殯儀館將會消失。從長期來看,前景難料。但有一點是肯定的:殯葬業將永遠不會回到2019年的樣子。

“最后的響應人員”

大約在2020年3月27日,阿拉巴馬州殯儀館的館長蘭迪?安德森接到第一通說要收走新冠病毒死者遺體的電話。那個人死在養老院里,養老院是疫情初期病毒傳播最迅猛的場所之一。

“從那開始,我們接收的死于疫情的人大量增加,大約占我們2020年遺體處理總數的25%。”安德森說道。他指出,他擁有的兩家殯儀館——拉德尼殯儀館(Radney Funeral Home)和蘭利殯儀館(Langley Funeral Home)——在2020年總共處理了100多名新冠病毒死者,遺體接收數量比2019年增加了60具到70具。

上述最近對額外死亡(指超出預期數量的死亡人數)的分析顯示,美國各地都出現了額外死亡現象,盡管這種影響因時間和地域而異。該研究的作者在科學期刊《美國醫學會雜志?網絡開放》(JAMA Network)上撰文指出,阿拉巴馬州是2020年人均額外死亡人數第五多的州,僅次于密西西比州、新澤西州、紐約州和亞利桑那州。

在H1N1流感大流行之后,安德森遵循美國疾病控制與預防中心(CDC)的指示,持續保持了足夠高的物資水平,以便能夠對100具尸體進行防腐處理,同時還配備了個人防護設備。新冠病毒來襲時,他可以與當地醫療機構共享物資,也能夠為自己的團隊提供保護。

然而,所有的物資都無法讓他和他的員工為應對他們將要面對的局面做好準備。安德森說:“疫情危機最嚴重的時候,那個退伍軍人療養院,我們大概每周要去五到六次。”他們還多次前往當地醫院的停尸房和人們的家。

他稱,“從大約4月到大約10月、11月,我們每天都要工作12到14個小時。”這一切負荷給工作人員帶來了身體上的損害,奔走在疫情前線的其他人還承受著心理上的損害。

拉諾特說,那些從事殯葬服務的人扮演著雙重角色。他們是公共衛生從業者,要確保病人在其遺體離開醫療系統時可以得到安息。在這個角色中,他們需要配合當地衛生官員的工作。但他們也是第一個為痛失親人者提供慰藉的人。

他說,去年,當每日死亡人數激增時,他們主要扮演公共衛生角色。但他們的另一個角色仍然存在。在應對疫情期間水漲船高的服務需求,并與其他人一起了解社交疏遠和其他防疫措施之時,殯儀館館長和其他殯葬從業人員試圖讓悲痛的家人參與到親人的安葬儀式中。

這需要用到一些新手段。凱米斯去年失去了她的祖母。由于疫情,她和她的母親無法參加葬禮,但多虧了一位殯葬禮儀師,他們仍然能夠參與其中。“她站在墓邊,舉著她的手機。”凱米斯說。她和她的母親在Facebook Live上觀看了葬禮的直播。

在凱米斯看來,這充分表明了“最后的響應人員”做點什么來慰藉痛失親友者的意愿。“那不是她必須要做的事情。她也沒有因此向我們收取費用。我也不知道可以提出直播要求。”

迎頭趕上

越來越廣泛的趨勢是殯葬專業人員嘗試使用新技術把親人家屬與死者聯系在一起,凱米斯的經歷就是其中一例。對許多人來說,通過Zoom直播葬禮或利用Facebook開線上追悼會非常新奇,但這些事物的出現意味著發展緩慢的傳統殯葬行業發生著巨大變革。

“殯葬業由來已久,有很多古老傳統的做法。”保爾?萊馬斯特曾經是一名遺體防腐師,現在擔任全美公墓及殯儀協會(International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association)的總顧問,他表示,“我認識很多殉葬從業者,他們甚至還有傳真機。”

萊馬斯特提到,疫情開始時,殯葬從業者發現自己面臨著各種問題,包括數字通信的監管問題,以及工作場所發生巨大技術變革等方方面面的問題。凱米斯表示,這種對新技術的采用“讓葬禮服務提升了不止十年”。

有關殯葬的教育正急于迎頭趕上。斯潘指出,雖然與一年前相比,如今全美各地更有可能參加線下葬禮,但“很大一部分家庭仍然想要網絡直播。”他還表示,雖然約翰古普頓學院早已開始提供數字營銷課程,但是新冠肺炎的爆發加快了這類課程的開設。

拉諾特稱,在過去,“逝者家屬和殯葬師有關葬禮的所有事情都是在殯儀館內面對面完成。”在美國一些地方,這種處理葬禮的狀況根深蒂固,法律規定更是如此,所以導致該行業向著新的形式轉型更復雜。

例如,紐約州的法律規定,公墓、火葬場和殯儀館的文件中不允許使用電子簽名。也就是說,悲痛的家屬必須提供親筆簽名,并通過聯邦快遞或其他方式寄送紙質文件。如果逝者家屬因為新冠肺炎而處于隔離狀態,那么這個寄送過程就會更復雜,CNHI的喬?馬奧尼寫道。最近,州政府對這條特殊的法律規定進行了修改。這也是殯葬行業變革的一大動力,因為新冠疫情已經導致該行業加速衰落。

曾經有一段時間,幾乎對所有美國人來說,在殯儀館中進行精心防腐處理后陳列的遺體就是殉葬的核心。維克森林大學(Wake Forest University)的一名法學教授坦尼婭?馬什專門研究葬禮和墓地產業,她表示,如今不同以往。就文化傳統而言,對待死亡和遺體處置的態度變化雖然緩慢,但卻實實在在地發生,現在越來越多地采用火葬就是這一趨勢的例證。

在過去的幾十年里,全美火葬率每年增長1%到2%。2016年,火葬率首次躍至50%以上。“火葬已經帶來了改變。”馬什表示。火化后可以用不同的形式進行最終的遺體處置和舉行哀悼,因為通常對尸體進行防腐處理需要專業人員進行操作,但是火化的遺體并不需要。

盡管許多人預測新冠疫情期間遺體火化的數量會激增,但根據北美火葬協會的數據,估計2020年的全美火葬率僅僅上升了1.5%。不過,在一些地區,火葬率的增幅要大得多。例如,在2020年的上半年,新澤西州的火葬率上升了3%以上。馬什指出,這些地區性的增長可能會持續下去。“問題是,人們會把火葬和新冠疫情聯系在一起嗎?”

如果兩者聯系到了一起,就可能會對火葬率的提高產生負面影響。不過馬什并不確定。“喪葬習俗對社會常態化具有強烈作用。”她補充說,如果人們出于需要選擇將心愛之人火化,然后發現這是一次積極的經歷,那么很可能在未來也會選擇火葬。

這種做法有很多好處。首先,火葬通常比完整的葬禮開銷更小,而且可以讓家屬有時間聚在一起,用自己的方式與逝者告別。相比我們許多人在電視上看到的盛大葬禮,火葬提供了截然不同的選擇。但對于大多數殯儀館來說,這意味著較低的收入和角色的轉變。“殯儀館從業者必須把自己的身份從遺體防腐師轉變成活動策劃者。”凱米斯表示,“這是大勢所趨。但是做起來并不簡單。”

未來殯葬

殉葬從業者角色的轉變,加之新冠疫情帶來的各種壓力和變化,正在對殯葬行業產生巨大影響。一些從業者正在離開該行業,而繼續從事該行業的人們需要應對身處死亡前線帶來的創傷。安德森自己所在地區的疫情情況穩定后,他邀請了一位創傷后應激障礙(PTSD)顧問與自己的員工會面。安德森說:“現在我們對自己所做事情的看法略有不同。”

與業內許多人一樣,安德森自己也感染了新冠肺炎。他失業三個月,住院一周。親眼目睹了疫情的肆虐之后,他對自己的康復更加擔憂。“我埋葬過太多死于新冠肺炎的人。”他表示。

克里斯?布西尼在疫情最嚴重的時候曾經是康涅狄格州兩家殯儀館的行政助理,他也感染了新冠肺炎,殯儀館的其他工作人員幾乎也未能幸免。“我們當時嚇壞了。”布西尼稱。殯儀館中唯一沒有感染新冠肺炎的是遺體防腐師,他是一名在停尸房工作了很長時間的年輕人,通常和其他工作人員沒有什么聯系。

布西尼之所以加入殯葬行業,是因為無論對于悲痛的家屬還是死者而言,都需要照護。他表示,“我真的很了解殯葬行業的溫柔之處。”而離開該行業的部分原因是新冠疫情帶來的各種壓力。

凱米斯認為,殯葬行業大批從業者的離開可能會推動該行業的進一步整合。她指出,在過去的一年里,一些考慮退休或離開的業內人士正選擇把殯儀館出售給企業集團。

咨詢公司的工作人員萊馬斯特負責了不少這類交易,并見證了過去幾個月的交易量出現了激增。他指出,“這促使很多業內人士會說:‘我不想再做這件事情了。’”

但這一趨勢可能發展較為緩慢,而且不可預測。新冠疫情期間發生的大規模死亡改變了殯葬行業的未來估值,因為在某些地方,預計在“嬰兒潮一代”發生的死亡高峰提前了十年有余。

凱米斯認為,“從現在到2025年左右,實際上我們可能會看到一些地區的死亡人數有所下降。”這種短期的下降可能會改變殯儀館、火葬場和墓地的估值,至少目前是這樣。不過凱米斯也表示,這可能也為培訓新的遺體防腐師、火葬場經營者、殯葬師等其他從事這一龐大行業的人員創造了時間。未來的殯葬專業人員一畢業就得進入一個已經被新冠疫情從根本上改變的行業,而這個國家才剛剛開始努力應對其影響。

馬什預計,未來三到五年內,會有更多人士提前退休或是不再從事該行業。她說:“很多人對這個職業都倦怠了。”

不過未來的種子正在開始播種。殯葬從業者所依賴的專業協會正在開始舉辦線下會議或大會,這是自疫情發生以前的首次嘗試。對于那些仍然留在這個行業的人來說,這是一個重新部署和審視近來所發生一切的機會。萊馬斯特表示,自己所在機構最近舉辦了一次殯葬行業分享會,大約有180名成員出席,“大家絕對是在分享故事。”他表示,現在有了一種新的同志革命情誼。

隨著殯葬專業人員認真反思過去一年半的情況,該行業也在努力規劃未來。“這是一次完整的殯葬行業對話。”拉諾特表示。對話的一部分是為下一輪疫情做好準備。最近,安德森在一次州會議上就這一話題發表了講話。他指出:“第一件事情就是照顧好你的員工。”(財富中文網)

譯者:萬志文 三疊瀑

去年,美國的死亡人數超過335萬人,遠遠超出了殯葬業的正常處理負荷。最近的一項分析發現,超過70%的額外死亡是由新冠病毒引起的。其他的額外死亡案例則與新冠疫情引發的紛亂有關,有些完全死于偶然因素。在全美各地的疫情重災區,殯儀館、墓地和火葬場都面臨著前所未有的運轉壓力。畢竟,該國的殯葬業系統往往只能夠應對可以預見的死亡人數(在像2019年這樣的正常年份,死亡人數約為280萬),而2020年它則要應對顯著增加的死者。

紐約州殯葬承辦人協會(New York State Funeral Directors Association)的執行董事邁克?拉諾特說,在紐約這一早期的新冠疫情重災區,“疫情讓人覺得是‘壓倒性的’、‘十分緊張的’。”拉諾特指出,正常時期,紐約州每天大約有400人死亡。這就是該州的殯儀館、火葬場和公墓所能夠應對的死亡人數。有時候,異常糟糕的流感季節會導致當地的死亡人數激增,但紐約州和其他地方的殯葬系統已經被證明具有相當的彈性。

在紐約和新澤西,疫情頭幾個月的情況并非如此。拉諾特稱,他的協會成員和鄰近州的同行都被激增的殯葬服務需求壓得喘不過氣來。“這種情況大概一直持續到2020年夏初,之后殯葬服務需求才真正開始回落到一個系統可以跟得上的水平。”他說道。

紐約疫情爆發期間,路上存放尸體的冷藏卡車成為了許多美國人對疫情初期的印象,也勾起了人們對“9?11”事件的回憶。那是當地殯葬行業上一次因為災難而承受過大負荷的時候。但在整個2020年,全美各地的死亡人數都出現飆升,殯葬服務專業人員的工作負荷隨之達到極限。

殯葬服務人員鮮少被提及。“有需要的時候,你需要他們的幫助。”北美火葬協會(Cremation Association of North America)的執行董事芭芭拉?凱米斯表示。“但是,我們協會的葬禮和墓地從業人員以及火葬場所有者卻從未被列在任何能夠看見的致謝急救人員的名單上。”她說,這個行當的人都明白自己的角色,但過去一年他們在前線的工作真的非常艱難。

現在,受更危險的變異毒株和疫苗接種率低的影響,美國各地的新冠肺炎病例再次出現激增。美國的疫情還遠未結束。但是,由于治療和控制新冠病毒的知識增進,再加上疫苗接種的鋪展,殯葬服務業不會面臨像去年那樣全美普遍的洶涌需求。自從開始評估行業狀況以來,殯葬行業領導者和擁護者均稱他們的行業因為疫情已經發生了不可逆轉的改變。

快速的技術變革、火葬的增加,以及不得不應對巨大的死亡人數的壓力,致使從業人員普遍出現職業倦怠,許多人離開了這個行業。提供殯葬藝術與科學課程的約翰?古普頓學院(John A. Gupton College)的院長史蒂夫?斯潘指出,去年該行業的營收也出現了下滑,因為種種防疫限制措施使得葬禮無法如常進行。他說:“我想,所有的殯儀館都會認定,它們在財務上受到了相當大的打擊。”據他估計,它們的收入下降了20%至30%。

從短期來看,這意味著這個行業將缺乏人手。從中期來看,這可能意味著本來已經被高度整合的殯葬行業將進一步整合,一些為黑人群體等特定社區服務的殯儀館將會消失。從長期來看,前景難料。但有一點是肯定的:殯葬業將永遠不會回到2019年的樣子。

“最后的響應人員”

大約在2020年3月27日,阿拉巴馬州殯儀館的館長蘭迪?安德森接到第一通說要收走新冠病毒死者遺體的電話。那個人死在養老院里,養老院是疫情初期病毒傳播最迅猛的場所之一。

“從那開始,我們接收的死于疫情的人大量增加,大約占我們2020年遺體處理總數的25%。”安德森說道。他指出,他擁有的兩家殯儀館——拉德尼殯儀館(Radney Funeral Home)和蘭利殯儀館(Langley Funeral Home)——在2020年總共處理了100多名新冠病毒死者,遺體接收數量比2019年增加了60具到70具。

上述最近對額外死亡(指超出預期數量的死亡人數)的分析顯示,美國各地都出現了額外死亡現象,盡管這種影響因時間和地域而異。該研究的作者在科學期刊《美國醫學會雜志?網絡開放》(JAMA Network)上撰文指出,阿拉巴馬州是2020年人均額外死亡人數第五多的州,僅次于密西西比州、新澤西州、紐約州和亞利桑那州。

在H1N1流感大流行之后,安德森遵循美國疾病控制與預防中心(CDC)的指示,持續保持了足夠高的物資水平,以便能夠對100具尸體進行防腐處理,同時還配備了個人防護設備。新冠病毒來襲時,他可以與當地醫療機構共享物資,也能夠為自己的團隊提供保護。

然而,所有的物資都無法讓他和他的員工為應對他們將要面對的局面做好準備。安德森說:“疫情危機最嚴重的時候,那個退伍軍人療養院,我們大概每周要去五到六次。”他們還多次前往當地醫院的停尸房和人們的家。

他稱,“從大約4月到大約10月、11月,我們每天都要工作12到14個小時。”這一切負荷給工作人員帶來了身體上的損害,奔走在疫情前線的其他人還承受著心理上的損害。

拉諾特說,那些從事殯葬服務的人扮演著雙重角色。他們是公共衛生從業者,要確保病人在其遺體離開醫療系統時可以得到安息。在這個角色中,他們需要配合當地衛生官員的工作。但他們也是第一個為痛失親人者提供慰藉的人。

他說,去年,當每日死亡人數激增時,他們主要扮演公共衛生角色。但他們的另一個角色仍然存在。在應對疫情期間水漲船高的服務需求,并與其他人一起了解社交疏遠和其他防疫措施之時,殯儀館館長和其他殯葬從業人員試圖讓悲痛的家人參與到親人的安葬儀式中。

這需要用到一些新手段。凱米斯去年失去了她的祖母。由于疫情,她和她的母親無法參加葬禮,但多虧了一位殯葬禮儀師,他們仍然能夠參與其中。“她站在墓邊,舉著她的手機。”凱米斯說。她和她的母親在Facebook Live上觀看了葬禮的直播。

在凱米斯看來,這充分表明了“最后的響應人員”做點什么來慰藉痛失親友者的意愿。“那不是她必須要做的事情。她也沒有因此向我們收取費用。我也不知道可以提出直播要求。”

迎頭趕上

越來越廣泛的趨勢是殯葬專業人員嘗試使用新技術把親人家屬與死者聯系在一起,凱米斯的經歷就是其中一例。對許多人來說,通過Zoom直播葬禮或利用Facebook開線上追悼會非常新奇,但這些事物的出現意味著發展緩慢的傳統殯葬行業發生著巨大變革。

“殯葬業由來已久,有很多古老傳統的做法。”保爾?萊馬斯特曾經是一名遺體防腐師,現在擔任全美公墓及殯儀協會(International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association)的總顧問,他表示,“我認識很多殉葬從業者,他們甚至還有傳真機。”

萊馬斯特提到,疫情開始時,殯葬從業者發現自己面臨著各種問題,包括數字通信的監管問題,以及工作場所發生巨大技術變革等方方面面的問題。凱米斯表示,這種對新技術的采用“讓葬禮服務提升了不止十年”。

有關殯葬的教育正急于迎頭趕上。斯潘指出,雖然與一年前相比,如今全美各地更有可能參加線下葬禮,但“很大一部分家庭仍然想要網絡直播。”他還表示,雖然約翰古普頓學院早已開始提供數字營銷課程,但是新冠肺炎的爆發加快了這類課程的開設。

拉諾特稱,在過去,“逝者家屬和殯葬師有關葬禮的所有事情都是在殯儀館內面對面完成。”在美國一些地方,這種處理葬禮的狀況根深蒂固,法律規定更是如此,所以導致該行業向著新的形式轉型更復雜。

例如,紐約州的法律規定,公墓、火葬場和殯儀館的文件中不允許使用電子簽名。也就是說,悲痛的家屬必須提供親筆簽名,并通過聯邦快遞或其他方式寄送紙質文件。如果逝者家屬因為新冠肺炎而處于隔離狀態,那么這個寄送過程就會更復雜,CNHI的喬?馬奧尼寫道。最近,州政府對這條特殊的法律規定進行了修改。這也是殯葬行業變革的一大動力,因為新冠疫情已經導致該行業加速衰落。

曾經有一段時間,幾乎對所有美國人來說,在殯儀館中進行精心防腐處理后陳列的遺體就是殉葬的核心。維克森林大學(Wake Forest University)的一名法學教授坦尼婭?馬什專門研究葬禮和墓地產業,她表示,如今不同以往。就文化傳統而言,對待死亡和遺體處置的態度變化雖然緩慢,但卻實實在在地發生,現在越來越多地采用火葬就是這一趨勢的例證。

在過去的幾十年里,全美火葬率每年增長1%到2%。2016年,火葬率首次躍至50%以上。“火葬已經帶來了改變。”馬什表示。火化后可以用不同的形式進行最終的遺體處置和舉行哀悼,因為通常對尸體進行防腐處理需要專業人員進行操作,但是火化的遺體并不需要。

盡管許多人預測新冠疫情期間遺體火化的數量會激增,但根據北美火葬協會的數據,估計2020年的全美火葬率僅僅上升了1.5%。不過,在一些地區,火葬率的增幅要大得多。例如,在2020年的上半年,新澤西州的火葬率上升了3%以上。馬什指出,這些地區性的增長可能會持續下去。“問題是,人們會把火葬和新冠疫情聯系在一起嗎?”

如果兩者聯系到了一起,就可能會對火葬率的提高產生負面影響。不過馬什并不確定。“喪葬習俗對社會常態化具有強烈作用。”她補充說,如果人們出于需要選擇將心愛之人火化,然后發現這是一次積極的經歷,那么很可能在未來也會選擇火葬。

這種做法有很多好處。首先,火葬通常比完整的葬禮開銷更小,而且可以讓家屬有時間聚在一起,用自己的方式與逝者告別。相比我們許多人在電視上看到的盛大葬禮,火葬提供了截然不同的選擇。但對于大多數殯儀館來說,這意味著較低的收入和角色的轉變。“殯儀館從業者必須把自己的身份從遺體防腐師轉變成活動策劃者。”凱米斯表示,“這是大勢所趨。但是做起來并不簡單。”

未來殯葬

殉葬從業者角色的轉變,加之新冠疫情帶來的各種壓力和變化,正在對殯葬行業產生巨大影響。一些從業者正在離開該行業,而繼續從事該行業的人們需要應對身處死亡前線帶來的創傷。安德森自己所在地區的疫情情況穩定后,他邀請了一位創傷后應激障礙(PTSD)顧問與自己的員工會面。安德森說:“現在我們對自己所做事情的看法略有不同。”

與業內許多人一樣,安德森自己也感染了新冠肺炎。他失業三個月,住院一周。親眼目睹了疫情的肆虐之后,他對自己的康復更加擔憂。“我埋葬過太多死于新冠肺炎的人。”他表示。

克里斯?布西尼在疫情最嚴重的時候曾經是康涅狄格州兩家殯儀館的行政助理,他也感染了新冠肺炎,殯儀館的其他工作人員幾乎也未能幸免。“我們當時嚇壞了。”布西尼稱。殯儀館中唯一沒有感染新冠肺炎的是遺體防腐師,他是一名在停尸房工作了很長時間的年輕人,通常和其他工作人員沒有什么聯系。

布西尼之所以加入殯葬行業,是因為無論對于悲痛的家屬還是死者而言,都需要照護。他表示,“我真的很了解殯葬行業的溫柔之處。”而離開該行業的部分原因是新冠疫情帶來的各種壓力。

凱米斯認為,殯葬行業大批從業者的離開可能會推動該行業的進一步整合。她指出,在過去的一年里,一些考慮退休或離開的業內人士正選擇把殯儀館出售給企業集團。

咨詢公司的工作人員萊馬斯特負責了不少這類交易,并見證了過去幾個月的交易量出現了激增。他指出,“這促使很多業內人士會說:‘我不想再做這件事情了。’”

但這一趨勢可能發展較為緩慢,而且不可預測。新冠疫情期間發生的大規模死亡改變了殯葬行業的未來估值,因為在某些地方,預計在“嬰兒潮一代”發生的死亡高峰提前了十年有余。

凱米斯認為,“從現在到2025年左右,實際上我們可能會看到一些地區的死亡人數有所下降。”這種短期的下降可能會改變殯儀館、火葬場和墓地的估值,至少目前是這樣。不過凱米斯也表示,這可能也為培訓新的遺體防腐師、火葬場經營者、殯葬師等其他從事這一龐大行業的人員創造了時間。未來的殯葬專業人員一畢業就得進入一個已經被新冠疫情從根本上改變的行業,而這個國家才剛剛開始努力應對其影響。

馬什預計,未來三到五年內,會有更多人士提前退休或是不再從事該行業。她說:“很多人對這個職業都倦怠了。”

不過未來的種子正在開始播種。殯葬從業者所依賴的專業協會正在開始舉辦線下會議或大會,這是自疫情發生以前的首次嘗試。對于那些仍然留在這個行業的人來說,這是一個重新部署和審視近來所發生一切的機會。萊馬斯特表示,自己所在機構最近舉辦了一次殯葬行業分享會,大約有180名成員出席,“大家絕對是在分享故事。”他表示,現在有了一種新的同志革命情誼。

隨著殯葬專業人員認真反思過去一年半的情況,該行業也在努力規劃未來。“這是一次完整的殯葬行業對話。”拉諾特表示。對話的一部分是為下一輪疫情做好準備。最近,安德森在一次州會議上就這一話題發表了講話。他指出:“第一件事情就是照顧好你的員工。”(財富中文網)

譯者:萬志文 三疊瀑

More than 3.35 million people died last year in the United States—far more than the death trade was easily able to handle. Over 70% of the excess deaths were attributable to COVID-19, a recent analysis found. Others were related to the disruption of the pandemic and some to simple chance. In hotspots around the country, funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematoria were under unprecedented stress as a system designed to accommodate a predictable number of deaths (around 2.8 million in a more normal year like 2019) confronted the challenges of caring for many more.

In New York, an early hotspot, “the adjectives that come to mind were ‘overwhelming’ and ‘intense,’” said Mike Lanotte, executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association. In more normal times, Lanotte said, New York State sees about 400 deaths per day. That’s the number that the funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries in the state are set up to handle. Occasionally, something like an unusually bad flu season causes a local spike in the number of deaths, but the system in New York State and elsewhere has proved fairly resilient over time.

During those first months in New York and New Jersey, that wasn’t the case. Lanotte said his members—and their colleagues in the neighboring state—were snowed under by demand. “It probably lasted through the early part of summer 2020 before it really started to come down to a point where the system could really catch up,” he said.

New York’s outbreak, with its refrigeration trucks to store bodies, became the face of the early pandemic for many Americans and conjured up memories of 9/11, the last time local death care infrastructure was so overwhelmed by a disaster. But deaths spiked in spots all over the country throughout 2020, pushing death care professionals to their limits.

People who work with the dead aren’t often discussed. “You need their help when you need it,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, “but my funeral and cemetery director and crematory owner [members] are never listed in any of the ‘Thank you, first responders’ things that are out there.” People in the business understand their role, she said, but the last year on the front lines has been a difficult one.

COVID-19 cases are spiking again across the country now, with a more dangerous new variant and low vaccination rates wreaking havoc. The pandemic is far from over for America. But better knowledge of how to treat and contain the disease, combined with vaccination, means those in the death trade aren’t facing anything like the nationwide deluge of last year. As they begin to take stock, industry leaders and advocates say their profession has been irrevocably changed by the pandemic.

Fast technological change, an increase in cremations, and just the sheer scale of death they had to handle have all contributed to an epidemic of burnout and many people leaving the business. At the same time, revenues last year—usually driven by funerals of the kind that weren’t possible under COVID-19 restrictions—were down, said Steve Spann, president of John A. Gupton College, which serves the mortuary business. “All funeral homes, I think, will determine that they took a pretty decent hit financially,” he said, pegging that impact in the 20% to 30% reduction range.

In the short term, that means there just aren’t enough people in the business. In the medium term, that might mean further consolidation in the already highly consolidated death business, and the loss of funeral homes that serve specific communities, such as the Black community. In the long term, it’s hard to say. But one thing is for certain: The death business will never return to the way it was in 2019.

“Last responders”

Alabama funeral director Randy Anderson got his first call to pick up the body of someone who had died from COVID-19—a “decedent” in funeral argot—on or around March 27, 2020. That person died in a nursing home, one of the early locations where the disease spread like wildfire.

“That began the multitude of deaths that we would have, about 25% of the deaths that we handled in 2020,” he said. In total, the two funeral homes he owns, Radney Funeral Home and Langley Funeral Home, handled more than 100 COVID-19 deaths in 2020, representing an increase of 60 to 70 calls to pick up bodies over 2019, he said.

That same recent analysis of excess death—the term for numbers of the dead that go beyond the expected—showed extra deaths occurring all over the country, although the impact was distributed in time and space. Writing in the scientific journal JAMA Network, the study authors identify Alabama as the state that endured the fifth-highest number of per capita excess deaths in 2020, after Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Arizona.

After the H1N1 pandemic, Anderson followed CDC instructions and continuously maintained a high enough level of supplies to embalm 100 bodies, along with PPE. When COVID-19 hit, he was in a position to share supplies with local health care providers and protect his own team.

But all the supplies in the world couldn’t prepare him and his staff for what they would face. “That veterans’ nursing home, we were there probably five or six times a week during the heat of the crisis,” Anderson said. They also made numerous trips to the morgues of local hospitals and to people’s homes.

“We were working 12- to 14-hour days from about April to about October, November,” he said. The toll of all that work was physical, but—as for others on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic—it was also psychological.

Those in death care have a twinned role, said Lanotte. They are public health practitioners who ensure that when patients leave the medical system as a dead body, they are put to rest. In that role, they work with local health officials. But they are also the first point of care for people grieving the loss of a loved one.

Last year, when daily deaths surged, the public health role had to take the front seat, he said. But their other role remained. While coping with the demands of the pandemic and learning, along with the rest of us, about social distancing and other measures, funeral directors and other death care professionals sought to include grieving families in their loved ones’ final disposition.

That took innovation. Kemmis lost her grandmother last year. She and her mother couldn’t travel to the graveside service because of the pandemic, but they were still able to participate thanks to one funeral director. “She was standing at the graveside, holding up her cell phone,” Kemmis said. She and her mother watched on Facebook Live.

To Kemmis, that’s a sign of how far “last responders” will go for those left behind. “She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t charge us to do that. And I didn’t even know to ask for that.”

Rushing to catch up

Kemmis’s experience is one example of a broader trend of death care professionals trying new techniques to connect loved ones with the deceased. While Zoom funerals and Facebook memorials were new for many consumers, they represent an even bigger change in the slow-moving, traditional funeral industry.

“Death care is an old profession. They have a lot of old practices,” said Poul Lemasters, a former embalmer who is now general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association. “I know a lot of people who even still have fax machines.”

When the pandemic began, he said, death care practitioners found themselves navigating everything from regulatory issues around digital correspondence to dramatic technology shifts in their own workplaces. That embracing of technology “advanced funeral service by a decade or more,” said Kemmis.

Mortuary education is rushing to catch up. While in-person funeral attendance around the country is more possible now than it was a year ago, said Spann, “a good portion [of families] still want livestreaming.” John A. Gupton College was beginning to offer digital marketing instruction, he said, but COVID-19 has accelerated that part of the curriculum.

In the past, “almost everything that a consumer would do with the funeral director would be done face-to-face in the funeral home,” said Lanotte. In some parts of the country, that state of affairs was entrenched in law, further complicating the transition to a new way of doing things.

In New York State, for instance, cemeteries, crematoria, and funeral homes were legally not allowed to accept digital signatures on their documents. That meant grieving families had to provide a physical signature and send the documents by FedEx or other means—a process further complicated if they were quarantined by COVID-19 themselves, writes Joe Mahoney of CNHI. This particular law was recently changed. But it’s part of a larger dynamic in the death care industry whose fading has been hastened by the pandemic.

There was a time when funeral homes and artfully embalmed and displayed bodies were at the center of death care for nearly all Americans. That’s not true anymore, said Tanya Marsh, a professor of law at Wake Forest University who studies the funeral and cemetery trades. Cultural attitudes toward death and final disposition are slowly but surely shifting, she said, a trend exemplified by the increased adoption of cremation.

For the past few decades, the national cremation rate has grown by 1% to 2% per year. In 2016, that rate rose above 50% for the first time. “Cremation has been a game changer,” said Marsh. It allows for different approaches to final disposition and mourning because cremated remains don’t require a specialist to handle them, as an embalmed body does.

Although many predicted a spike in cremations during the pandemic, the national cremation rate went up only by a predictable 1.5% in 2020, according to numbers from the Cremation Association of North America. In some areas, however, the cremation rate increased far more. In the first six months of 2020, for instance, the cremation rate in New Jersey went up by more than 3%. These regional increases may endure, Marsh noted. “The question is going to be, Do people associate [cremation] with COVID?”

If they do, that could negatively impact the increase of cremation rates. But Marsh isn’t sure. “There’s a really strong social normalizing aspect of funeral practices,” she said. If people had a loved one cremated for the first time out of necessity but found it to be a positive experience, she added, it’s likely they will seek out cremation for future final dispositions.

The practice has a lot going for it. It’s generally less expensive than a full burial, for one thing, and it gives families time to gather and say goodbye in their own way. It allows for very different options than the big funeral many of us see on television. But for funeral homes, it represents generally lower revenues and a changing role. “They have to change their identity from being embalmers to event planners,” said Kemmis. “That’s what the trends are pointing to. And that’s hard.”

Tomorrow’s death care

A changing role, combined with the other stresses and changes of the pandemic, is having a huge impact on the death trade. Some are leaving it, while those who remain are dealing with the trauma of being on the front lines. After things settled down in his area, Anderson brought in a PTSD counselor to meet with his staff. “We view what we do a little differently now,” he said.

Like many in the profession, Anderson himself caught COVID-19. He was out of work for three months and hospitalized for a week. Seeing the ravages of the disease firsthand made the prospect of his own illness more alarming. “I had buried people that died with [COVID-19],” he said.

Kris Busini, who was an executive assistant for two funeral home owners in Connecticut through the worst of the pandemic, also caught COVID-19, along with almost everyone else at his funeral home. “We were terrified,” he said. The only one on his team who didn’t catch COVID-19 was their embalmer, a young man who worked long days in the funeral home’s morgue, away from other staff.

Busini was drawn to the death care industry because of the care involved, for both those grieving and the deceased. “There’s a tenderness to it that I really appreciated,” he said. He left, in part, because of the stresses of the pandemic.

The exodus from the death care profession will likely drive further consolidation, Kemmis said. After the past year, some members of the profession who were contemplating retirement or leaving their practice are choosing to sell to conglomerates, she noted.

Lemasters handles some of those transactions as part of his consulting firm and has seen a spike in the past few months. “This has pushed a lot of people to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” he noted.

But the trend may be slow and unpredictable. Death on the scale of what has happened during this pandemic altered the future value of the death trade, because in some places, the boomer generation whose death peak was anticipated to be more than a decade from now happened early.

“Between now and 2025-ish, we might actually see a decline in deaths in some areas,” Kemmis said. That short-term decrease may change the valuation of funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries—at least for now. But it may also create time to train up new embalmers, crematorium operators, funeral directors, and others in a vast profession, Kemmis said. The death professionals of tomorrow will graduate into an industry that’s been fundamentally altered by the pandemic, in a country only beginning to grapple with its implications.

Marsh expects to see further early retirements and industry exoduses over the next three to five years. “There’s a ton of burnout,” she said.

Some seeds of what’s coming next are beginning to unfurl. The professional associations that death care professionals rely on are starting to host in-person meetings and conferences, the first since before the pandemic. For those who have stayed in the profession, it’s an opportunity to regroup and examine the recent past. During a recent gathering of about 180 members of the death trade hosted by his organization, Lemasters said, “there was absolutely a sharing of stories.” There’s a new feeling of comradery, he said.

As death care professionals reckon with the past year and a half, the industry is also trying to plan for the future. “That’s a full death care industry conversation,” said Lenotte. Part of that conversation is preparing for the next pandemic. Anderson recently presented on that topic at a state convention. “The first thing is just take care of your staff,” he said.

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