EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - In times of crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, one subset of workers that often goes unmentioned are mortuary workers. Other medical professionals and essential workers have been lauded for their response to the ongoing pandemic and for their hard work in keeping important facets of society going in this challenging time. But mortuary workers, such as the ones that work at East Brunswick’s Brunswick Funeral Home, have also had to adapt significantly in order to address the needs of coronavirus victims and their families.
The Brunswick Funeral Home began preparing for a potential pandemic before COVID-19 hit the states, says the funeral home’s administrator, Randy Gagnon. The first official victim of the disease they had to work with did not come until late March. Before then, the home’s care team foresaw potential shortages in PPE and tried to stay ahead of the curve. They use CDC-mandated protective equipment when working with victims, and are working outside their usual supply chain in order to avoid running out of PPE. Gagnon says that adapting to the pandemic was a team effort.
“Peter Kulbacki founded the funeral home 38 years ago, and this was something he had never seen in his entire career,” He said of the current circumstances. “Our team has been great in adapting and trying to find solutions for the families [of the deceased]. As restrictions change, we would have to change with them. We have to be very flexible and very responsive to new policies and how we can best serve our clients.”
The funeral home has experienced an uptick in activity since the pandemic started, so its team has been busier than normal - not just with preparing bodies, but with planning events and trying to find solutions for new problems. Funerals have become somewhat of a challenge since social distancing measures were put in place. The Brunswick Funeral Home is currently exploring a variety of options so that families of COVID-19 victims can still properly memorialize their loved ones - digital arrangements, outdoor services, and drive-by services are all options that they are working on.
Of the new funeral-planning process, Gagnon stated “We talk with families about what we could do - sometimes we have to utilize technology or just be creative with where the services were. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all for every family. In this case, that was the challenge, but it’s not a new one.” Families are allowed to choose from the different socially-distanced formats to find the one that best suits what they want.
One of the Brunswick Funeral Home’s drive-by services has already gained media attention. On May 9, they held a service and funeral for former police lieutenant and firefighter Kenneth Skalla, 69. Skalla was also a member of the home’s care team, making the event all the more personal. “We’re just trying to find solutions for families and what they need at the moment,” Gagnon said of planning the event. In addition to funeral services, the Brunswick Funeral Home has also been helping to organize community events such as movie nights.
Gagnon stated that while dealing with COVID-19 and how it has affected the community is difficult, it has been encouraging to see how people have stepped up to support one another in these challenging times.
“It was beautiful to see the town come together during these challenging times, but it’s tragic as a whole to see these unprecedented events,” he said. “I think we are living history right now, but it’s good to see everyone come together in different areas. Our concern is the safety of the community, and I know they’ve been very strong with trying to be there for people.”