Throughout the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio continually talked about how the first thing the city would do to mark its reopening, once it was safe to do so, would be to throw a parade to honor the first responders, essential workers and everyday New Yorkers who stepped up to help out during the crisis. And this week, he finally announced that parade is happening: the “Hometown Heroes” ticket tape parade will take place at 11 a.m. on July 7th along the Canyon Of Heroes in Manhattan. But among the groups signaled out for recognition, there was one glaring omission: funeral workers and other people in the funeral services industry.
“I’m floored and disgusted that myself and my colleagues and all who work in funeral service in New York City have been forgotten for the essential worker ticker-tape parade despite their insane work done during COVID,” said Kiki Valentine-Rakowsky, a Brooklyn-based funeral director. “All these guys have PTSD. How on earth do they forget about the funeral workers? These people should be acknowledged.”
The list of honorees for the parade includes broad groups like healthcare workers, transportation workers, and first responders, as well as more specific groupings like emergency food providers, retail and bodega workers, and faith leaders. But there is nothing about funeral directors, funeral service assistants, crematory workers, cemetery staff, embalmers, or anyone who was deputized to do removals and pick up bodies during the crisis.
We’ve reached out to City Hall for more information about the parade honorees.
For many funeral industry workers, this was just another reminder that the sacrifices they made last year as the virus surged and overwhelmed hospitals and morgues have largely gone unnoticed and unrecognized by the city and its residents.
“I haven’t heard the same recognition from the city that everyone from food delivery men to UPS and FedEx delivery men have gotten. The same kinds of accolades and credits they’ve received—which they deserve—I have not heard the same about the funeral industry,” John Heyer Jr., of Scotto and Heyer Funeral Directors, told Gothamist. “As funeral directors, we were in every single hospital that had high incidents, with bodies, with families, and many of us have lost staff and family members because we kept doing our essential work.”
Heyer posited that politicians don’t like to bring up the industry because they shy away from bringing attention to the amount of people who died here. As of June 16th, the city has counted over 33,300 confirmed and probable deaths due to the coronavirus.
In general, many people are still uncomfortable talking about death—one funeral director told Gothamist a man she recently went on a date with broke up with her by text because he “couldn’t stomach” her line of work.
And although there were an overwhelming amount of people who died, Heyer noted that not everyone in the city had a direct connection to them: “If you didn’t have someone who died in your family, you don’t have a connection to the funeral director, as essential as they are.” But a majority of people do have a good sense of how other essential workers—say delivery people or healthcare workers—directly affected their lives.
“So many of us in the funeral industry have gone through a truly traumatic experience dealing with the number of deaths, the fact that we all had to leave our families and then jeopardize them when we came back home, to take care of people passing away,” Heyer said. “Too often you only hear about funeral homes and directors when something goes wrong and theres a problem—when someone has done something really horrible. You don’t often hear and acknowledge the services they’re providing the rest of the time. This is a great opportunity to acknowledge all the dedication and work, which is a 24-hour service—we don’t ever not work, we’re always on call.”
Erik Frampton, who runs a boutique art framing business with his husband, became a temporary morgue truck worker during the pandemic last spring, which involved the harrowing task of rearranging dozens of bodies within a refrigerated truck. He agreed with Heyer’s assessment, and said that even at the height of the crisis, it felt like their work was being overlooked.
“There was a sense of alienation from celebrated groups while we were on the job, it was a conversational topic that came up,” Frampton told Gothamist. “There was some hope among my crew and participants in this gruesome activity that there would be recognition, or federal assistance dollars, or some form of public or financial recognition that would be in the pipeline, surely. I think the opposite proved true.”
Around this time last year, the last of the three trailers under their management was closed. “When the job was over, our immediate employer sent us a really beautiful text that referred to the banging of cans and trumpets and improvisational saxophones on balconies that celebrated [essential workers] every night at 7 p.m., and acknowledged that we were not part of the groups recognized in that banging. But [she said] that she would bang her can out the window for us,” Frampton added.
What all the funeral workers Gothamist spoke to agreed upon was that they’d like to take part in this upcoming parade, if the city would only reach out to them. “I would like to be a part of it, as a representative of my industry—not for anything in particular I did, but because we all did above and beyond at that time,” said Heyer.
Frampton said he would “absolutely” take part in the parade, but he also hopes there is some legislation or funding put in place “to prevent the crunch that happened this time. If somehow that kind of preparedness could be put into a permanent system of response, that would be good. I think treatment of funeral workers and their lack of recognition should be studied in pursuit of fixing that problem.”
For Valentine-Rakowsky, it’s about making sure the people in her industry who sacrificed for all of the city last year don’t remain invisible.
“It was an insurmountable trauma, like 9/11 stretched out over months and months,” she said. “I want my son to know what I do matters, and what all these people do matters.”