Sandra Abbott lives and breathes death.
As a certified embalming technician, a certified funeral director and the secretary and treasurer of Abbott Funeral Services in Aurora, she’s ready to make funeral arrangements, pick up cadavers or prepare bodies for burial or cremation any time of day, every week of the year.
As a hobbyist, she frequently travels to some of the state’s most obscure cemeteries to search for unique headstones, peculiar causes of death or notable historical figures. A bona fide buff of Colorado interment history, she took a shine last month to an iron-clad headstone she found at a cemetery in Westcliffe that shielded an intact 1904 photograph and the biography of the Colorado woman it commemorated. She’s also enjoyed recent visits to a venerated boneyard in Silver Plume wherein local historians have clarified several of the bygone fates of the deceased.
“They list like people drinking poison and falling from trees,” Abbott said of the Clear Creek County locale. “That’s a great little project.”
But like umpteen residents across the metroplex this year, Abbott saw her personal world rejiggered by the coronavirus pandemic. Though her business on South Gibralter Street has remained relatively steady, her cemetery trips with her husband and teenage daughter have been few and far between.
“We spent a lot of time at home feeling a little bit depressed,” she said of her family’s summer. “I think everybody is feeling a little claustrophobic.”
Indeed, the pandemic has resulted in more time at Abbott’s combined funeral home and personal residence, where she and her husband, Sean, handle and prepare services for an average of four or five dead residents a week. The husband-and-wife duo specialize in services for veterans, a group Sandra said often opts for the most no-frills options available.
“Their big thing is: ‘Put me in a pine box straight in the ground or burn me,’” she said of many veterans’ disposition requests. “We specialize in direct cremation because that’s what the majority of them want — that or the simplest casket.”
The Abbotts also specialize in arranging military honors for families who seek them, Sandra said.
The virus has managed to stay slightly less than an arms-length from the Abbotts, neither of whom have contracted the virus, though they’ve handled deceased residents who died from complications COVID-19 produced. Sandra said she and her husband — both of whom handle bodies on a regular basis — mask both the dead and themselves during the embalming process to ensure no lingering virus particles are expelled from the deceased’s lungs and passed onto the living. Other than that, the process is rather quotidian, according to Sandra.
“We don’t really treat them any differently than we would any other body with a contagious disease,” she said. “We’re not going through hugely different methods or hoops to move them.”
The family business hasn’t been overrun with virus victims in recent months, Sandra said, though the pandemic has altered other types of deaths that appear on her preparation table.
“There have been a large number of suicides, and I think it’s a mental frustration right now, dealing with loss of income, loss of perceived freedoms and things like that. It’s been an emotional toll on a lot of people,” she said. “With adults it’s a lot of overdoses, and with teenagers it’s been a lot of jumping off of things. So I think it’s been like an escape sort of thing; just to escape normality or reality or however you want to look at it.”
Experts have feared an uptick in suicide rates across the world in recent months, especially among poorer and more rural communities, according to data compiled by The Brookings Institution last month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this summer released findings from a study of some 5,000 U.S. adults who reported heightened levels of suicidal ideation and depression during a query run in late June.
But whether it’s death by suicide, COVID-19 complications or other causes, Sandra said the typical grieving process remains upended due to pandemic-related restrictions. Fewer in-person interactions, shrunken or non-existent funerals and a lack of spaces to gather have all compounded to make losing a family member that much more tragic this year, she said.
“It’s difficult,” Sandra said of speaking with the bereaved. “You can hear it on the phone. You can hear it in their voices that they’re struggling, but you can’t do anything about it.”
She said her typical role of de facto grief counselor has all but evaporated, erasing the chance to lend a tissue to someone weeping in her lobby or steer the conversation away from stormy thoughts for even just an instant.
“Really it has taken the personalization out of it — there’s not that face-to-face consolation that funeral directors are used to,” she said. “We want to touch somebody on the hand and tell people everything is going to be OK and show people we’re there, but now it’s almost a clinical situation. It’s as sterile as possible: Here’s the paperwork, here’s this, we’ll bring (the body) to you in the end. And that’s not normal for funeral directors, and most of us don’t deal with it well.”
Previously, the Abbotts and other area funeral directors would meet clients at their houses, in their offices, at restaurants, or wherever they felt most comfortable to sort through the legal process of death. Now, it’s all done through the cold, digital ether.
“Before you could go to a coffee shop to do paper work, and they feel a bit more in control,” Sandra said of family members of the deceased. “You just can’t do that anymore, and that’s hard. It’s very difficult not being able to get away from your house to just go and be outside and go to the zoo or the botanic gardens or the movies or wherever. You’re stuck at home with your own thoughts with no way to rid yourself of those thoughts.”
Whatever you’re going through, crisis counselors and professionally trained peer specialists are available to help. Call Colorado Crisis Service’s hotline at 1-844-493-TALK(8255). There is no wrong reason to reach out.
Reporter Quincy Snowdon can be reached at qsnowdon@SentinelColorado.com.