Back in April, newspapers reported that in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, the COVID-19 death rate was the highest of any county in America with a population of over 5,000 people.
Courtney Baloney runs Treasures of Life, a funeral services center in the neighboring parish of St. James. He has been a funeral director and embalmer in this area for more than 25 years. Death has long been close to the surface. This region is part of a swath of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge dotted with dozens of petrochemical factories and oil refineries that spew pollution into the surrounding communities. The area has taken on the unbecoming name, Cancer Alley. Yet there is much more to this place. The culture and people are vibrant and strong. This region gave birth to some of the early creators of jazz and blues. And then, of course, there is the famous jazz funeral tradition. The colorful musical funerary processions can be seen meandering the rural roads en route to the unique above-ground cemeteries, with the mighty Mississippi River and her ships in the background.
When Covid-19 arrived last Spring, these communities found themselves on the very front lines of a devastating global pandemic. And in the middle of it all was the funeral director and embalmer Courtney Baloney. The Covid-19 pandemic, says Courtney, “has been a defining moment in my career, in my history and culture, and in my community.”
In a set of exclusive interviews, Digital Dying learned first-hand from Courtney what it was like to be on these front lines and just how the pandemic has reshaped his community, his profession, and himself. Courtney’s words are powerful, his story is important, and his message, despite all the pain and suffering, is also beautiful. In this first interview, he discusses his work as an embalmer on the front lines of Covid-19, and in a second interview to be published next month, he discusses his views on the art and importance of embalming. In an age when the practice seems to be on the receiving end of fresh criticism regularly, and new modes and methods of death care have blossomed—and been written about extensively here at Digital Dying—Courtney’s words add needed complexity to the issue, and will likely turn a few heads too. So stay tuned for that in January.
But the story today, in this season of rejoicing and rebirth, but also sorrow and remembering, is one funeral director and embalmer’s up close and personal firsthand experience with COVID-19. Digital Dying was introduced to Courtney Baloney by the renowned photojournalist Julie Dermansky. You can view some of her excellent work on pollution issues in Louisiana communities, where she writes and photographs regularly for the environmental investigative site, DeSmog Blog. You can check out her personal website for her extensive coverage on environmental and climate issues across the United States and beyond. And you can see a powerful photo essay on Courtney and his work as an embalmer, published earlier this year in the magazine Mother Jones.
Thank you so much to our readers and supporters. Happy holidays and a safe and happy New Year to all. Now to the interview with Courtney Baloney, Part I. Enjoy~~*
The coronavirus has hit this country particularly hard, and it has hit your region harder than just about anywhere else in the country. Of course, as an embalmer and funeral director, you are on the frontlines of it all—Can you talk a bit about what the experience has been like?
This has sent me back to eras I read about in history books but never thought I would actually experience. I have been saying to myself that even if I live to 120, I will never forget these moments. They have been defining moments in my career, in my history and culture, and in my community. I live in the country, a knitted-together community where everyone knows everyone. I buried a lot of people that I knew personally. There was a time during the Spring when I was regularly burying multiple members of the same family. And it had me thinking, ‘Will all of us die before the year is out?’ That is when I started to gather myself because, at a certain point it just got that overwhelming. You would hear of another coronavirus death and then another, and then my town made world news because we had the highest death rate of coronavirus in the whole country.
We have pretty good business in this area, but this was three or four times a day business. It was as if we had another 9/11 attack, but this was everywhere and every day. I can tell you I buried so many different scenarios. I buried a mother and a son. I buried two brothers. I buried a father and a daughter. And it is my job to make sure their bodies are a representation of them. I held on to this father and daughter before burying them just so their mother who had Covid could get strong enough to get out of the hospital and attend the service. In that case, I didn’t even have anyone to communicate with because all of the immediate family had either passed or were in the hospital. Another gentleman lost four brothers and sisters, and then later, more nieces and husbands died. We are talking a total of nearly ten people out of one family.
I buried a wife and her husband. I will tell you about that; that touched me to the core. The husband became ill, and the wife became ill from driving him to the hospital. The wife ended up going down quicker than the husband. The children were both in the military so they are in other regions of the country. Imagine having to make arrangements from afar because mom and dad always handled things and now mom and dad are both ill. It took your patience from one day to the next. In another case, a woman’s dad was in the hospital and he was so bad they thought he was going to pass. His wife ended up passing and the gentleman didn’t even know his wife had passed until the day of the funeral. Can you imagine an individual not even knowing their wife has passed, and they almost died too?
Families would come here to Treasures of Life to view but we did viewings on Zoom too as a lot of people couldn’t attend the funeral because they had Covid. Regarding the family where two brothers died, I ended up Facetiming the dad so he could see his son’s funeral because he couldn’t leave his living room. He was quarantining because of Covid. And one son was set to get married prior to his passing. So we ended up burying him in his tuxedo, a young man. It was at times like this that I thought, Man, this is definitely a dream. I could never have imagined doing all this.
I felt privileged at the same time confused but at the same time-honored to be an embalmer in my profession. I had colleagues saying, I am sorry I went into this business. But to me, this is what I do. It would be no different than an E.R. nurse or physician turning my mom away when she has coronavirus. How can I deny a family their final goodbye if this is what I am trained to do? This has truly defined my character as a funeral director and embalmer. I will tell you, if I become upset or a little overwhelmed, this past year is a constant reminder that puts things in perspective. You didn’t have to bury a loved one through the Covid, so shut your trap Courtney. You going home at night, you sleeping comfortably at night. This is what you signed up for. I think as much as I knew the value of a meaningful funeral and how it consoles the grieving process, in that moment of coronavirus I realized how valuable we are to the community.
Can you talk more about what sort of toll you think the coronavirus has taken on your staff, and just what protocols you instituted at Treasures of Life to handle the pandemic?
I would compare the coronavirus to a modern-day battle because we were literally on the front lines. I felt as though I was in the military on behalf of funerals, like we were fighting a funeral war, and I was commander of a funeral army. The battleground was a burial place, the weapon was my mind to utilize embalming to make sure I could restore these folks and preserve them and keep them disinfected. It required my staff to work more, continue to change our clothes, continue to sanitize, take shoes off as soon as they come in the door, and immediately wash hands. Imagine trying to do that for 200 days straight, without missing a beat. And my staff deserves credit. No one became sick with Covid, and we maintained dignity and professionalism. We pulled it off this year. But it wasn’t all peaches and cream. Of course, there were, as my pastor would say, key to fellowship moments in these times. Because people became overwhelmed, people became pressured. But you know, that is the only way you see a diamond come through.
On top of all of that, Covid presented a lot of professional challenges. I started to get a lot of cases where due to the respirator being attached to these people’s faces for so long when the respirator was removed pieces of skin came off the face. The lips were swollen due to the respirator, and often the whole face was swollen. The hands were swollen. Imagine your wife dropping you off at the hospital and there was no sign that you were ill, and now you have passed because of Covid and she hasn’t seen you in 15 days, and she hasn’t seen what the disease has done to you. People would say, you know I had to drop my dad off at the hospital two weeks ago and that was the last time I saw my dad. And it is my job to recreate their loved one as if Covid had never existed.
I am trained to restore human remains. Even if there is just a finger left, I am going to restore and embalm that finger and make it look well presentable. You can be just a skeleton, I will try and rebuild your face just from a forensic sketch. So I am going to do my work. But imagine trying to do that and the family is highly emotional from not having seen dad in over a month. Yet when they come to the funeral and they say, ‘Oh my god, my dad looked as though he never had Covid.’ I will honestly tell you, a lottery ticket with all the right numbers cannot compare to the feeling of what I was able to give to those families. It was priceless.
What are some of the safety precautions that you have had to exercise because of Covid-19?
I went to mortuary school at Delgado Community College in New Orleans and I know about microbiology and chemistry and how to treat diseases. Mortuary school teaches the basics. But dealing with Covid-19 you would definitely want to be a seasoned and experienced embalmer because the fear factor had everyone on edge. I have been embalming for about 25 years and we have always had to abide by what they call universal precautions. That means treat every case as if there is a contagious infection. And if you do that, then you are always going to be operating with safety and precaution.
At Treasures of Life, we developed a system during Covid. I have three front office representatives and they are licensed funeral ambassadors or funeral service assistants. One person was in charge of all death certificates. One person was on logistics, they assumed all of the first calls. We were so busy I had someone in the office just answering the phones. We were processing five to seven claims per day, so someone had to be on the phone with an insurance company. And the insurance agent was working from home too because of Covid, so they didn’t have all the information like in normal times. There was a lot we had to learn from scratch because we hadn’t experienced this before. I myself did all of the embalming and also met with families. I had to put a lot of other things aside and make sacrifices because of Covid. Normally we operate 9 to 5, I couldn’t do that. We worked into the night. It would have been too much for me and my staff to go and gather all the remains, so we hired a local pickup service as a backup, a first call responder.
I remember when we first got a notice about things getting shut down, I told my staff I will continue to pay you all for the next month and a half no matter what. Well, it never got to that point because we never had off days. We were doing services on Sundays, we were doing services at night, we were having four or five services on a Monday, and that is unheard of. The hearse felt like it was an Uber for funerals. It was so busy. We developed such good logistical pathways and coordinated things so well during Covid that right now it feels like we are prepared for anything.
Covid, although it was such a horrible year for deaths, also became a blessing because I was able to provide others more work and that allowed them to keep food on their tables.
Can you talk a bit more about the pollution you face in your region, and how that has affected the Covid-19 death rate?
We live in an area called Cancer Alley because it is filled with large chemical plants and oil refineries that put a lot of toxic emissions out into our communities. The EPA has determined that one community in our region has a higher cancer rate than anywhere else in the United States. And Covid-19 in this area has been heightened due to the poor air quality. In fact, in April it was reported that our region had the highest rate of coronavirus in the whole nation, and this was directly linked to the air pollution and petrochemical plants. There has been some skepticism, if people already have breathing problems, are those deaths more caused by these chemical plants that pollute the environment? And the jury is still out on that—is it coronavirus killing all these people, or is it actually the air pollution?
So imagine that compounded with Covid. Imagine living here and they say our high rate of Covid deaths was compounded by all of the toxic chemicals released into the air from being in Cancer Alley. I often say that with Covid it is not just losing a loved one, it is like losing a loved one twice because you can’t even see them after they have passed. But here in Cancer Alley with the continual pollution, we have to deal with, and now with coronavirus, it is almost like you lose someone three times. You lost your loved one and couldn’t be with them and couldn’t view their body because of Covid. Then you come to the funeral and you can’t even be comforted by other family members and you have to grieve alone. And then you go home and you still have these petrochemical plants posing an ongoing threat to your health.
Did people in your profession step up and share Covid tips during the pandemic?
Yes, we have the National Funeral Directors Association or NFDA, and they have been on top of it since December and January. They started having webinars, they started having discussions, there were Zoom meetings. They definitely gave us a heads up. The NFDA communicates closely with the CDC, so of course they want to protect their members and make sure we stay safe as well. Our large annual conference was going to be in New Orleans this year, but that was held online instead. There is the National Funeral Directors Association, and the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association. And I have also developed relationships with colleagues overseas.
As things were just starting I was able to talk to a good friend in Ireland and he is telling me how they are doing things there and I realized, I am going to need two refrigerated mortuary trucks. I started talking to a buddy of mine in Canada and what I gathered from him is they couldn’t even do funerals, they had to cremate everyone there. That was a mandate, since then it has been lifted. And we were all watching the news in Italy, where if your loved one died in hospital you just had to call the funeral home and know and trust that they took them to the burial site because these families didn’t even have a chance to see their loved one off. How blessed and fortunate we have been to at least have been able to say goodbye.
How exactly did you make international embalming connections?
I met the international colleagues through one of my mentors, Vernie Fountain. He has an international embalming academy in Springfield, Missouri for advanced practitioners. We have a chance to work on medically donated individuals, and we can deal with them in a worst-case scenario, like a gunshot wound, a car accident, any disease that rearranges the face. That academy is one of the best things that happened to me. Meeting people in my profession from all over the world allowed us to have a network to discuss things with each other as the coronavirus came on.
As for Vernie Fountain, this man has so much history. He was actually in the room when John F Kennedy was being autopsied. During 9/11 he worked with medical officials in New York and explained the process he developed to care for the unidentified body and tissue specimens. He worked as a forensic investigator to actually retrieve the majority of what was left of those individuals. He has developed training manuals on mass fatalities and disaster response. He changed my life when it came to my embalming career. Technical skills and also legal matters, and how to relate to families.
With regards to Covid-19, what is happening in your area right now?
We call the months from November to March the season of death. And this year we have Covid on top of that. I actually buried someone today that has Covid. The rapid test came back negative but her chest X-ray showed me she had Covid. We are treating everyone like they had Covid, mainly for protective purposes. Right now the Covid numbers are spiking back up in this parish, but the rise has not been as alarming as what we saw from March to August. Then it was just constant.
Let’s end on a somewhat lighter note. I watched the episode of the Netflix show The Crown recently, and there is a scene where King George is being embalmed and his daughter walks in the room, which had me wondering just how accurate different TV shows are when it comes to embalming. Can you talk about how your profession is typically portrayed on TV—Do they usually get it right, or usually get it wrong?
More often than not it is a negative perception. It is a dark mystified type thing. The flip side is one of the most recent movies I had a chance to explore, called Getting Grace. They were airing it at the 2018 National Funeral Directors Association convention held in Salt Lake City. The movie is so touching because it does talk about the funeral profession and is one of the few that actually depicts funeral directors in a positive light, versus the dead spooky director who is actually taking people’s body parts and selling them.
The movie is about this young girl who had terminal cancer and she knew she was on the brink of dying. She faces the inevitable and goes into a funeral home to see what was going to be done to her body. The whole idea is she develops a strong relationship with the funeral director. Not a sexual or intimate relationship, more like a bond, because she knows that in the end he is going to take care of her. That was the big take away, seeing how someone can face their fears even in the midst of dying.
**Don’t forget to stay tuned to Digital Dying for the second part of our exclusive interview with Treasures of Life funeral director and embalmer Courtney Baloney!!