Sammy G. Oakey III is a fifth-generation funeral director, the president of Oakey’s in Roanoke, Virginia. In the 150 years since his great-great-grandfather founded the business, it has never changed quite as fast as it has in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen Virginia, like many states, limit the number of people who can gather for public events, including funerals. For several months, no more than 10 people could attend a funeral in person, and now, chapels and visitation rooms are limited to 50 percent capacity, with six-foot distancing. And the state requires cloth masks to be worn in indoor public spaces, as the CDC advises.
Oakey and his staff are wearing masks per the state’s mandate, and they’re asking visitors to the funeral home to wear them, too. Most are — but there’s a vocal minority who refuse. This puts the funeral director in an uncomfortable position, as Oakey told Legacy in a recent conversation.
Legacy: The first pandemic restrictions were put in place back in the spring. Now it’s fall. How have things changed for you over those months?
Oakey: It started out, back in March, and we were terrified. We didn’t know enough about it at that time: Can the body give off COVID-19? If we pick a body up, can we catch it from the body? We all thought it was on surfaces instead of transmission through the air. Now, we’ve been living with it for so long that we’re getting used to it. It’s almost hard to remember what it was like before March. I’m much more comfortable now — if everybody is wearing a mask. If people are not wearing a mask, I’m much less comfortable, because I feel like there’s no mitigation of the virus taking place.
Legacy: How common is that? Do many of your visitors decline to wear masks?
Oakey: Ninety-five percent of people are doing exactly as they’re supposed to do: distancing, washing hands, wearing masks. It’s just that 5 percent of the people are giving us 95 percent of the problems.
We offer disposable masks at the door for anyone who hasn’t brought one, and most people are wearing a mask when they walk in or will take one of ours. But the problems come later, when we can’t see them. They take their mask off, or they pull it under their nose, or they pull it onto their chin.
We do have directors asking people to wear their mask properly: “Can I get you a mask? Would you mind wearing your mask?” Some comply, but a certain amount will say, “I’m not going to,” or “I don’t believe in it,” or “I have a breathing condition and I don’t have to wear a mask.” One person said it was against their religious beliefs to wear a mask.
Legacy: What do you do when someone refuses to wear a mask properly?
Oakey: We had one case where we went to the family and asked them to tell their visitors to wear a mask, and they did comply. But sometimes the people not wearing the mask are family! And it’s always important to at least try to get the people to wear a mask. Last month, I got so upset that I called the police, but they said there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s not a law — it’s the governor’s order, and they said they can’t enforce that.
The governor said he was going to send people out to check on businesses, and if one finds that a business is allowing people to go maskless, the business can face high fines. If a family is saying, “We’re not going to put this mask on,” and the police are saying, “We won’t enforce it,” what are we supposed to do? It puts us in a position we’re not familiar with, especially trying to be a dignified, kind funeral home.
Legacy: Have you ever had to ask someone to leave over the mask issue?
Oakey: Unfortunately, when it gets that bad and they refuse to wear a mask, we just give up. We have never physically removed anyone from our premises — but that could still happen.
Legacy: What about when you’re serving a family that has a funeral somewhere other than your facility? Can you ask visitors to wear masks there?
Oakey: We can control what goes on in our buildings, but when we go to a place of worship, we can’t make people wear masks there. And we do have several churches in this area that do not believe in masks. Most churches are very strict [about requiring mask use], but there are some that do not encourage masks. Whenever we have a funeral in one of those churches, we give each one of our employees that will be working with the funeral one of those N95 masks. I’m not going to ask my people to go into a church that has a high concentration of non-mask wearers and take a chance on jeopardizing their health or their family’s health. We’re going to give our employees the protection they need.
Legacy: We were hearing, back in spring, about funeral homes in New York and other hot spots that were overwhelmed with work. Did that ever happen in Roanoke?
Oakey: We had some situations where our cooler was filling up. Our cooler can hold 35 decedents, and we had a couple of cases where we were almost to the point of not having enough room. And that made me nervous. All it would take was another couple of death calls. We were never inundated to the point where we couldn’t handle it, but there were a couple of cases where we were two or three calls away from having no more room.
Legacy: How has all of this affected morale in your staff?
Oakey: We have been so proud of our people. None of our people panicked and ran away, or took sick time, or anything. Everybody stayed, and as we got information, we shared it with our staff. Anything we could give them, we gave them. And we also gave anyone who worked through the pandemic a sizable bonus — we considered it hazard pay.
Legacy: What’s one final thing you can tell our readers about being a funeral director during COVID-19?
Oakey: My fear used to be that someone’s cell phone would go off during a funeral. I don’t even worry about cell phones anymore. I worry about masks.