Cemeteries are a workplace.
They are many other things, of course. A gathering place for grieving families. A picnic spot to remember a beloved abuela. A thoughtful natural respite in a crowded city.
They are also a job site, where the pandemic has given the employees much more work to do, while radically impeding their ability to do it in a way they see as humane.
Gary Schaaf counts himself lucky that as he walks from the Mount Olivet parking lot to his office over the mortuary, he can pause at a friend’s burial site inside the newly landscaped grove called Stations of the Cross.
Schaaf’s friend, an engineer also named Gary, helped conceive this sublime overlook of Mount Olivet’s lake, with North Table Mountain looming to the west, lit up by sunrise. Then his friend died of coronavirus, at age 70, on Christmas Eve. And Schaaf had another body to care for.
This is part of a weeklong series marking a year since COVID-19 was first detected in Colorado. The state’s first confirmed cases were announced March 5, 2020.
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Schaaf is the executive director of Mount Olivet, a sprawling, quiet oasis just up a rise from Interstate 70 in Wheat Ridge. It encompasses a mortuary, funeral services, chapels and grave and mausoleum sites, operated for all faiths by the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver since legendary Bishop Joseph Machebeuf bought the farmland in the 1860s.
One hundred and fifty thousand souls have touched down at Mount Olivet in that time. Before the pandemic, that number grew by about four each day.
When pandemic deaths started flowing through the gates faster than Schaaf’s beleaguered, PPE-wrapped mortuary staff could handle them, he was loath to desecrate the Mount Olivet landscape with a refrigerated truck. There was a day when they were hours away from needing that space, if a few more bodies arrived. Schaaf had an electrician out to see what the high-voltage wiring would cost. They found a way to rearrange things and never ordered the truck. When the room where filled cremation urns are kept overflowed, they tastefully repurposed a closet to hold more.
Most people who choose to work at mortuaries and cemeteries are in some way called to the work, according to Alan Wofelt, a Fort Collins grief counselor who frequently consoles people in the trade. They see their jobs not so much as helping families say goodbye, but rather helping them welcome a new state of their own lives, and a new phase of their relationship to those who are gone.
Especially in the early days of the pandemic, Schaaf said, families felt completely cut off at the time of death. They couldn’t see their loved one in the hospital. The archdiocese decided on closed caskets, in part because of conflicting public health advice about embalming and body handling, when no one had any idea yet what a family or a mortician’s exposure would be to lingering infection. No more than 10 people at a service, all distanced well beyond the arm’s length of a comforting gesture.
Think of all the things we can’t do, can’t touch, can’t see during the pandemic, and you see the “erosion of purpose and meaning” for those who help with funerals, Wofelt said. “You can’t carry out what you are meant to do.”
At the graveside, attendants who for 45 years have respectfully carved out a resting place and expertly draped the brutal mechanics of interring a casket had to stand at attention in Tyvek moon suits and goggles. Oblivious to or intentionally ignoring the pandemic rules, 50 people might try to gather at the open grave.
That’s where Mount Olivet regulars like operations manager Jennie Marquez would intervene. Not to hand out extra tissues. But to pull the family matriarch or patriarch aside and say, “Forty people need to go back to their cars. You choose.”
Later, when services could include more people, Mount Olivet handed 20 black plastic wristbands to the family’s leader and told them to choose graveside mourners that way.
Standing with Marquez next to the lake, in the chilly February shadow of one of a dozen-odd mausoleum buildings on the cemetery grounds, Schaaf talks of how they worked to earn back the soul of their jobs.
“I don’t think you can have love without suffering,” he said. “The suffering was profound. So we tried to respond with love.”
Blanket. Pocket. Cross.
When Schaaf strolls the Mount Olivet grounds to talk to employees, observe a funeral or visit his friends’ graves, he likes to think of Bishop Machebeuf riding the same unpaved paths on horseback, before he donated the farmland to the church. Machebeuf defied death a dozen times, roaming thousands of rugged miles through his intermountain vicarage and building Denver’s first church. When he finally succumbed in 1889, Machebeuf’s week-long visitation brought, according to the biographer who was there, a “multitude whom no church in the West could hold.” Thousands wept tears that fell directly on his displayed body.
No one at Mount Olivet, not the families, not the morticians, not the office manager, no one, liked the health decree early in the pandemic that bodies needed to stay in sterile body bags even to the grave, a terrible way to remember. So front desk assistant Laurie Lopez started making flannel blankets to give free to each family. The blankets have a pocket.
Mount Olivet is named after the Jerusalem burial site, where Jesus is said to have ascended to heaven. The Wheat Ridge Mount Olivet orders stone crosses cut near Jerusalem, the size of a hair brush. The stone is split down the middle lengthwise to create mirror copies. Families slip one of the stone crosses into the blanket pocket. Sometimes they write a message first, in Sharpie.
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The blanket goes into the coffin. Everyone likes to think about the warm blanket, instead of the body bag. The other stone cross goes home with the family.
Tokens for memory can be hokey, of course, said Wofelt, the grief counselor. Mount Olivet may be nonprofit, but perception of the funeral industry as a whole suffers from a profusion of price tags and awkward euphemisms. Now, when families are robbed of their last moments together and the bridge to their next steps seems torn away, tokens should once again be urgent, he said.
Grief is different from mourning, Wofelt said. Mourning is the shared response to loss. “The more you can make use of symbols, the more an expression of grief becomes mourning.”
Schaaf holds an example of the stone cross, tenderly. “I lost both my parents when they were pretty young. I wish I could have been connected in that way.”
Through all the adjustments for families, Mount Olivet leaders had to keep dozens of employees healthy, through seven-day work weeks, exposed to 25% more bodies than usual, uncertain as everyone else what might constitute exposure but far less able to avoid it. The dead kept coming. By practicality and by faith, the dead can’t be set aside for later.
Mount Olivet worried about its workers’ mental health as well. At home and among extended families, cemetery employees had the same fears as everyone else, of COVID-19 taking a loved one, only to come into work every day to see the results of someone else’s worst fears realized.
Somehow, no employee ever got seriously sick from the coronavirus. Now Schaaf keeps track of other numbers: 77% are vaccinated, under health worker and essential services priorities.
What to see in beauty
All along, the funeral and memorial world has changed, if only a little faster than it was already changing before the pandemic. For decades, fewer Americans were going to funerals, fewer bought grave plots, more avoided the costly, old-fashioned rituals of an institutional burial.
The number of families opting for cremation over a traditional burial soared to 55% in 2017 from 5% in 1970.
Grief counselors lament the changing times, saying Americans’ impatience for mourning most hurts their own capacity to be fully, consciously human. Cemeteries lament, too, but also must adapt.
An immigrant from Burkina Faso recently died, not from coronavirus, but cut off from any family memorials because of coronavirus restrictions. Distant family could not travel to Mount Olivet, and Mount Olivet was blocked from shipping the body home. So 75 people in central Africa watched a Zoom Mass.
“And so in some ways, our push to respond to COVID has made us better ministries, and ministers, to those around the world,” Schaaf said.
When Schaaf stands in the middle of his 393-acre workplace, at the Mount Olivet lake, next to his friend’s grave marker, he is conscious of being both a faithful Catholic and a faithful employee. When he first started discussing cemetery design and engineering with his late friend, Mount Olivet was drought-stricken and brown. The archdiocese spent millions of dollars updating the irrigation system. The friends marveled at how green the summers became.
To many Catholics, Schaaf said, the transcendental properties of being are to be taken seriously: truth, goodness and beauty. He pointed to an aging, severely sheared cottonwood whose remaining limbs still shade a few graves. He hopes it can be saved.
“We’ve taken that as one of the things we’ve worked really hard on in the last couple of years — to make this place beautiful,” he said. “Because I think in beauty, you see God.”