Funeral Director: ‘COVID-19 Has Changed Me Spiritually and Psychologically’

Stephen Kemp, 62

Title: Funeral director, Kemp Funeral Home & Cremation Services

Location: Southfield, Michigan

Kemp owns a funeral home in a predominantly African American community in the Detroit area, as Michigan is only now starting to recover from an April surge in COVID-19 cases. Kemp describes the profound impact the pandemic has had on his business, including on his own outlook and role.

As told to Lisa Esposito as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How has COVID-19 changed the way you do your job?

COVID has changed me spiritually, physically and psychologically.

The grieving process is more complicated now because we’re not able to have traditional services. We’re not doing what we traditionally do when we lose somebody in our community, because of restrictions from COVID-19. Hugging one another and sharing with one another — that’s part of the healing process, which for over a year we’ve been unable to do.

The most harrowing thing I’ve seen, and that I’m still seeing even lately, is where we have people who live together — one survives COVID, one dies. Those are very difficult.

Last year, we took care of a family where a daughter and her mother both got ill together. They were in the hospital together, a few beds apart. And the mom passed, but the daughter, because she was younger, made it through. I just had a Zoom conference with the family, because they’re still quarantined. Survivor’s guilt is a problem for the daughter.

One way I’ve changed my practice is to make families remember the good times. I have them pull out pictures. Rather than getting down to business with pencil and paper — I listen more. And I share more about myself — that helps us as human beings kind of come to grips with what’s happening now.

[SEE: Myths About Coronavirus.]

I contracted COVID last year, likely when serving all the people. Then my wife and son got COVID, too. Luckily we all made it out of it. Physically I’m tired — really, really tired. But I’m still moving on.

COVID affected our community so roughly last year, and I’m beginning to see an uptick in deaths here in the last couple of weeks. I certainly have seen more accidental deaths and suicides — which typically does not happen to this degree in the community I serve, because we’re spiritually strong. The car accidents and suicides really disturb me more than anything, lately.

I have always been a spiritual person. What COVID has done for me spiritually is to inspire me to help more, to take care of people more. To look at my career and my job as more of an educator rather than a businessperson, and really reach out to our community.

Part of it is educating others on how not to pass away — how to take care of yourself. Because comorbidities like obesity, diabetes and hypertension contribute to our demise with COVID. And a lot of mistrust with taking the vaccine, which I’m running into now.

[SEE: What to Say to Friends or Family Members Who Hesitate to Wear a Mask.]

I’m still serving and will continue to do so. It’s my calling in life. Funeral directors have always been an integral part of our community. It’s a greater role than just a businessman providing services. I see my role as being more active in the big picture than just taking care of death. We’ve also got to heal the living.

When we’re hurt, that’s tough to do without spiritual support and face-to-face support. And loving and hugging one another, especially in our minority community where we’re used to doing that. You don’t see that now — because we can’t.

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