Until this year many New Yorkers had never heard of Hart Island, where the city’s unclaimed dead are buried. Then, in the midst of the pandemic, video of contractors digging long trenches there went viral. Around 120 bodies were sent to the tiny islet every week, as burial grounds and crematoriums struggled to keep pace with covid-19. One funeral home in Brooklyn was sued for stacking bodies in an unrefrigerated rental truck. At the peak of the epidemic Sal Farenga, an undertaker in the Bronx, was doing three times as many funerals as usual and turning away 50 grieving families a day. “It was heartbreaking,” Mr Farenga says.
Covid-19 has caused more than a million recorded deaths, most not in developing countries like Brazil (pictured) but in developed ones. That cuts against a long-standing trend. Since the second world war, wealthy states have had few massive episodes of premature fatality. Their cultures have tended to push mortality out of sight, into hospitals and out of polite conversation. Now, the pandemic is nudging people in the rich world to adopt the open and pragmatic approaches to death that are more typical in developing countries, where poverty, poor health care, dangerous roads and armed conflict keep people on familiar terms with the grim reaper.
A new survey by Hospice uk, a charity, found that this year 40% of British who lost a family member to covid-19 wrote down their end-of-life wishes, and a third planned their own funerals. (Overall, less than a fifth of Britons have done either.) More people are opting to die at home: since early June the percentage has been 30-40 points above the five-year average in England and Wales. Reminders of the epidemic—not just news reports but masks and hand-sanitiser bottles—raise the subliminal awareness of death which psychologists term “mortality salience”. “We are surrounded by death whether we like it or not, and it is healthier for us to accept it,” says Tracey Bleakley, head of Hospice uk.