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A Funeral Director Who's Picking Up Bodies —and Worries — From Nursing Homes

Carol Williams suspects more nursing home deaths are coronavirus-related than officially reported

family photo of a woman the photo is placed on a table

Courtesy National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association

En español | As a longtime funeral director in her own Atlanta community, Carol Williams knows what it means to be there for others. She has arranged services for relatives, close friends, fellow church members and sorority sisters. She has learned to grapple with her own grief while helping others through the process.

What she faces today amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, introduces a host of new challenges — including all the nursing home deaths.

Carl M. Williams Funeral Directors, the historic funeral home she co-owns with her husband, has picked up the bodies of five nursing home residents known to have tested positive for the coronavirus. But she suspects many more recent deaths in these facilities are COVID-19 related. Without test results, she says, “you have no way of knowing whether the person had the virus or not."

She worries about funeral industry colleagues who come in contact with still-infected bodies and are struggling to find the protective equipment they need to safely do their jobs. Williams, who for 10 years has been the executive director of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, knows of several members who've died after contracting the virus.

"We're not the first responders,” she says, “but we're the last responders.”

A former public school teacher who taught health, she switched gears and went to mortuary school with her son in 1995, three years after she and her husband bought the funeral home. She went on to teach microbiology and chemistry in the mortuary school. She became a licensed funeral director and embalmer but looks at her job “as a ministry.” She tends to the deceased but finds reward in serving the living, who sometimes have no one else to turn to.

"We end up being counselors,” Williams says, “because we're there to listen."

She hears the anger and guilt coming from family members who left parents or spouses in nursing homes they trusted, and never got a chance to say goodbye. Sometimes, they didn't even know their loved one got sick.

And she hears from fellow funeral directors about families who come back one, two, three times as additional relatives contract the virus and die. One nursing home in Atlanta, in fact, saw two couples fall victim to COVID-19, forcing their children to bury their parents back-to-back. It's a lot to take in and, even with her decades of experience, Williams feels it all.

"Sometimes you have to walk away,” she said, “and sit in your office and cry because you're helpless."

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