A Long Journey Home: The Complexities of Bringing the Dead Back in the Era of COVID


What was already a risky process became even more complicated Coronavirus disease-19 era. Bureaucratic disruptions and erratic international flights led to delays that lasted for weeks and months. At the start of the pandemic, states closed airports and refused to ship bodies abroad – even people who did not die from the virus. Even when countries reopened their borders, some officials remained reluctant to accept bodies from the United States, a Coronavirus disease-19 hot spot. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that there is a small risk of transmitting the coronavirus from a dead body, Torres told me that a consulate asked him to obtain a letter from a doctor stating explicitly that the corpse was Coronavirus disease-Free.

When the sealed coffin was ready to fly, Torres snapped a photo of the cargo box to send to his superiors at the funeral home, then waved goodbye to Torauszka and headed to the subway to finish handing over the documents. Twaruszka drove the coffin to the Queens site at the funeral home, where staff would take him to the airport. Previously, there were day trips between Paris and Nomia; Due to the epidemic, road travel has only occurred every week. While waiting in Paris, the Enzo’s coffin will be kept in the airport warehouse along with other shipments, such as mail and food. He was to be buried on January 20, five weeks after his death.

Late on the evening of December 12, Jennifer Corigliano heard the doorbell bell in her home in La Flesch, France. A police officer has come to notify Jennifer that her eldest son, Enzo, a student at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, has died of suicide. After the officer left, Jennifer noticed the clock was reading 23:23, causing her to stop. She and Enzo used to send each other messages when something important happened at a mirror clock – like 12:12 or 20:20 – one of the many jokes and myths they shared.

Jennifer called her husband, Gregory, who still lived in Noumea, and asked him to travel with her to New York. Then she got in her car to deliver the news to her youngest son, who lived in a town seven hours to the south. “It was difficult for me to call my little son to tell him that his brother had passed away,” she recalls, but also could not bear to sit alone with her grief. Driving through the night, Jennifer charts her next steps. She had to be with Enzo, and she had to take him back to Noumea. “The only thing on my mind is that I need to go see him,” she said. “I want to tell him I’m here. I want to touch him.”

A few days later, Jennifer and Gregory’s request to travel to the United States was approved. Once in New York, and for the first time, seeing the vast area and woodland where Enzo had studied for nearly two years, they checked into a hotel to isolate him for five days. The couple, in the process of filing for divorce but still friendly, would spend sad days eating french fries and ordering room service. When they are released from quarantine, on Christmas Eve, they finally see Enzo’s body, placed in a coffin at a funeral home in Canton. “It was like you don’t see someone and then you see them again for the first time,” Jennifer told me. “I felt this. I haven’t seen my son in a long time, and I see him again.” Over the next few days, she and Grégory shut down Enzo’s bank account and cleaned his bedroom – “a real, messy boy’s room,” Jennifer tells me. She asked for a mahogany coffin in honor of her son’s school colors, scarlet and brown.

Enzo, an internationally ranked squash player who competed with the French junior national team as a teenager, moved to Canton to play at AUC. Gregory, the coach, said he was a “magician” on the court, was sober when he spoke to me, lit up as the conversation shifted to his son’s athletic abilities. “Show man,” added Jennifer. He was thin and muscular, with distinctive hair near his neck and a galaxy of holes in his ears. His playing style was similar to that of a dancer. He was agile even as he lunted across the field. There was no doubt that his parents would return his body to Noumea, where he was a local hero.

The boxes are stored in the funeral home before they are transported.

But how they were moving his body nearly nine thousand miles during a pandemic was less clear. The funeral home that collected Enzo’s body was unable to ship internationally, so its manager, Matthew Connors, asked the Bergen Funeral Service to bring the casket to Noumea. Returning to New Caledonia, Jennifer and Gregory drove a casket funeral employee for six hours south to Hasbrooke Heights, where the body was stored with a handful of others, some of whom had been sitting there for weeks. Connors and colleagues at the funeral home have an uncommon level of experience working with grieving families abroad. In the past, the company has addressed issues involving American college students who died during distant semesters, immigrants who wanted to be buried in their home countries, car accidents, drowning, and faulty medical procedures – which made losses even more difficult for their remoteness.

In a way, the pandemic has made all the deaths distant. At a time when mourning rituals are completely upended, and many spend their last days isolated from family, it is as if everyone – even those close to home – is dying in a foreign country. When my grandfather died, who Coronavirus disease-19, At a nursing home in a Dallas area last July, a local funeral director offered to ship his ashes to my parents’ doorstep, in Southern California, through the United States Postal Service. He has already suffered the insult of a Coronavirus disease Death – My mother and I, unable to enter his facility, watched him gasping for air through the window – and we couldn’t bear his remains for the postman to drop them off like a parcel. Instead, I waited eleven days in Texas for his body to be cremated, and spent one wet night camping and the others at a friend’s house in Houston. When my grandfather’s ashes were ready, I went back to Dallas to pick it up, tied the jar in the passenger seat, and drove over a thousand miles home.

Back in California, I read stories about families around the world, like mine, grieving about how their deceased is honored during lockdown. Months later, when I saw Enzo’s coffin at the Consulate in Manhattan, I wanted to know how his family was handling such a painful task. While talking to Jennifer, I realized something in the way she talked about the love and responsibility associated with bringing her son home. She looked like my mom and like me.

For some time last spring, the Bergen Funeral Services Company was forced to stop shipping what was left overseas altogether. The funeral home was flooded with corpses, and had no space to store bodies for long periods of time. “A lot of the families chose to cremate the bodies, many of them chose a local burial here instead,” said Connors, the funeral director who oversees the company’s transfer of the remains. “There was really nothing they could do.”

Connors invited me to his family’s funeral home in Hasbrook Heights, a two-story house across from a Catholic school in a suburban neighborhood twelve miles west of Manhattan. Connors, a third-generation funeral worker, spent his childhood afternoons in the building and eventually began working there as an adult, handing over bodies and documents for shipments.

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