Death in small-town America

It was an exchange that gave birth to a thousand memes. At the beginning of August, Jonathan Swan, an Australian journalist working as Axios’s political reporter, sat restlessly, his face contorted in bewilderment, as President Donald Trump asserted to him in an interview that the United States government had the coronavirus pandemic under control.

At the time, Johns Hopkins University was reporting that about 1 000 Americans were dying each day. 

“They are dying, that’s true. And you have — it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague,” Trump said. 

Cities such as New York and Detroit and other metropolitan areas have long been identified as coronavirus hotspots, but small towns across America are grappling with their own waves of infection. Medical specialists say the disease can be especially devastating in rural areas, where populations are older and healthcare infrastructure is rarely well funded. 

The Coughlin Funeral Home, ensconced in a modest, milk-white Dutch colonial building, rests at the heart of both Califon, New Jersey, and small-town Americana in 2020. 

It shares its parking lot with a retired railway station. Down the street is a barbershop, a red-brick post office, a Methodist church and half a dozen family-owned businesses hawking flower arrangements and homemade sausages. Most have closed down, baking silently in the August heat. 

Dean Sulpy, Coughlin’s funeral director, drives past each one every morning on his way to work and tries to ignore the stillness that has captured his neighbourhood. 

Califon, named in 1918 after the California Gold Rush, comprises just less than 3km2 of exurban land. It’s the type of small town that inspired John Cougar Mellencamp’s brand of heartland rock. 

During previous summers, hordes of children held court in front of Rambo’s Country Store while twentysomethings smuggled flasks of vodka into the annual carnival thrown to raise funds for the local fire department. Once considered a nuisance, residents now think back fondly on those acts of youthful indiscretion. 

In Sulpy’s mind, the American way of life has suffered greatly under the Covid-19 pandemic, but so too have the American dead. 

“It’s very sad to die alone,” Sulpy said, “but it’s a tragedy to be buried alone.” 

The pandemic has affected people across the US and the world in countless ways. One of the most painful effects it has wrought is the forced abandonment of the solemn-yet-cherished rituals that typically follow death. Wakes now pose a life-threatening risk to loved ones of the deceased, as do burials. Now only a handful of mask-clad people attend the funerals. 

When the novel coronavirus appeared to be spreading wildly in April and May, the funeral industry responded by adopting a patchwork collection of regulations; some of them passed down by state governments and others devised unilaterally. Families were widely barred from holding open-casket ceremonies, many organisations restricted burials to only “legal next-of-kin” and some Catholic cemeteries went so far as to permit no more than two people at grave sites. 

“People were panicking about getting the virus,” Sulpy said. “And at the same time they’re hurting because they’ve lost their mother or their father and all the usual ways you start to get closure are not there for you … they’re gone.” 

The emotional strain isn’t reserved only for those who have lost loved ones. Sulpy, a kind, well-dressed person, effectively operates the Coughlin funeral home alone. A friend from the neighbourhood, Charlie Post, and his pet schnauzer stop by from time to time to help with some duties. 

But consoling grieving families, getting bodies ready for burial and answering 2am phone calls to retrieve Covid-19 victims are tasks Sulpy handles by himself.

“I don’t suffer from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] or anything,” Sulpy said. “That surprises people. Other people expect me to be hardened, but I’m not at all hardened. I’m human. You can never get used to this. If I ever got hardened I would quit. I do what I do because God is with me and that’s what keeps me going.” 

The pandemic has weighed on Sulpy, though, as it has on the host of scattershot funeral directors that live throughout small-town America. 

George Layton has been operating his funeral home for nearly 38 years. Situated in pastoral Bedminster, New Jersey, it’s less than 8km from the Trump National Golf Club. 

Before Covid-19, Layton was hired to make preparations for five to seven funerals a month. In April and May this year, he was responsible for as many as 20. 

“It was a difficult period,” Layton said. “There was more work than I was used to and it was also difficult because all the funeral homes were scrambling to find personal protective equipment. 

“We had the same problem hospitals did because the supplies were so low and I’m sure the hospitals took precedence. So we were using our same equipment over and over again, not knowing if that would infect ourselves.”

In response to the difficulties created by the pandemic, Sulpy, Layton and their counterparts have relied on their professional social network. 

“There are times when I’m overwhelmed and I call up a colleague in Flemington or another town and ask them to help me with a job,” Sulpy explained. “They said ‘yes, of course’, because we don’t see ourselves as competitors. We’re all trying to help people.” 

The collaboration will probably continue, Sulpy said regretfully, because Covid-19 cases are once again spiking in regions across the US, and the White House coronavirus task-force co-ordinator, Dr Deborah Birx, believes the country is now entering a “new phase” of the epidemic.

“What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread. It’s into the rural as equal urban areas,” Birx told CNN’s Dana Bash on the State of the Union talk show.

The comments stood in stark contrast to a June Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which Vice-President Mike Pence declared the US was “winning the fight” against Covid-19 and there “isn’t a second wave”.

Birx, who came to secure a more prominent role on the White House’s coronavirus team after a rumoured falling out between Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Trump, is now reportedly facing her own demotion of sorts.

After the interview, Trump took to Twitter to call his task force co-ordinator “pathetic”.

As the politics of the pandemic continue to play out in a more contentious fashion, people like Sulpy are making do with what they have. Alone.

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Peter Rothpletz
Peter Rothpletz is an American writer and contributor to the Mail & Guardian. An alumnus of Yale University's Journalism Initiative, he primarily reports on international affairs, civil conflict, and radical extremism.
Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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