The Cost of COVID-19
SOUTHEAST Mo. (KFVS) - A worldwide pandemic really hits home when you deal with death every day.
“We just almost stay braced for who’s going to get sick next.”
Terry Parker’s spent his entire career in the funeral industry.
The longtime Mississippi County coroner and veteran funeral home director said COVID-19 changed everything.
“And in a small town where everyone knows everyone, everyone is impacted by the death,” he said.
Parker and Mary Katherine McMikle grew up together in Charleston and have worked side-by-side for more than three decades.
Her parents started the McMikle Funeral Home back in 1952.
Have you ever seen anything like it in your industry? “No. No. I don’t think any funeral home can say that they have. We are depleted. Spiritually. Emotionally. Physically. Because of all the death,” she answered.
“The deaths have come suddenly,” Parker explained as he walked through the Charleston funeral home’s casket display.
And with that immediate loss, he said, comes a sobering reality.
“Where does the money come from? If there’s no life insurance. You know families, sometimes, are just struggling to make ends meet. And then you’re faced with this.”
“There’s been a lot of people we’ve had to help and work with and maybe provide, you know, help with the cremation services, which they never would have even considered,” McMikle added.
Other families, they say, move forward with a small service. Limited guests are spread out in a chapel made to hold dozens.
“Immediate family. And sometimes it would be three people,” McMikle said.
“The funeral, to me, is the healing process for those left behind,” Parker explained. “And when you can’t gather and can’t receive the warmth and care of your family and friendship or have a speaker or a minister or music. You don’t get that very intimate family release. It’s unsettled business, to me.”
But the business of funerals did not stop. And that came with its own challenges. For Parker, it meant constantly worrying about getting sick.
“Having to have honest conversations with families. Have you been exposed? Because I need to know before I put myself in your presence.”
Scott County Coroner Scott Branam serves as funeral director at McMikle’s location in Sikeston.
He said the effort to stop the spread of COVID even extends to the hearses they drive and the caskets they load.
“During a funeral process, when we go to the cemetery or we load at the funeral home, the pallbearers and the family come in contact with the back of the hearse,” he explained. “So the hearse is cleaned inside and out with every funeral or every death call we go on. And to make sure that we protect the community and protect the families that we serve.”
McMikle said staying open during the height of the pandemic worried her family. She recalled her younger son Blake constantly reminding her to be careful.
“And he was very upset with me for continuing to work and not shutting down. But, I said we can’t. I mean, there’s no way we can do that. This is what we do.”
But as the hectic workload continued last fall, McMikle began to feel the strain.
“Well, I was having a lot of back pain and aches. I didn’t really notice that I had a high temperature,” she explained.
“I’m as close to Mary Catherine as I am my own sisters,” Parker said. “And I just could not imagine Mary being sick.”
But McMikle soon learned she’d contracted COVID.
“I was in the hospital. On oxygen. Terribly ill,” she said.
“It was a knife to the gut,” Parker said of McMikle’s diagnosis. “Just waiting for that next call or text from her husband saying things were better for Mary. I lived on the edge because it could have gone either way.”
Parker feared for his close friend and felt the added pressure of keeping the funeral home open, and not getting sick himself.
“But I knew the people needed me. And I knew Mary needed me to be well to carry on for the community,” he said.
McMikle’s condition improved, and she came home on Thanksgiving Day.
“And when they rolled me out, I felt like I was in a war zone because I’m sure they were so overworked. And just....just....the laundry. You know, they would get the clean linens out. And they were in the hallway in bags. I know they were so shorthanded. And I felt so sorry for them to have to work so very hard,” she said.
As the pandemic moved into 2021, Parker and McMikle watched their community struggle with restrictions, the vaccine and saying goodbye to two people who dedicated their lives to public service.
“The pressure is immense,” Parker admitted. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
It takes a strong person to bury your friends. And lifelong friends Terry Parker and Mary Katherine McMikle have done more of that in the past 20 months than ever before.
“So, we have to be strong in those instances,” McMikle explained. “But you can’t take your heart out of it. And that’s what’s been the hardest. Losing so many young people. Seeing so many families suffer.”
“When the phone rings. And it’s one of our care centers. Hospitals. Major medical places. They’re required by law to go through, this is so and so at certain medical center. And we’re calling to report the death to the coroner. I just wish sometimes they could say, ‘hey, Terry,’ and just cut to the chase. ‘Your neighbor across the street didn’t make it.’”
In September of this year, Parker took two devastating calls in the same week. First, longtime Charleston Department of Public Safety dispatcher Shalonda Chappell lost her battle with COVID-19.
DPS Chief Robert Hearnes called Chappell’s smile her trademark.
“Whenever you stopped into dispatch, you know, she’d turn around and look at you. And the first thing would be those big eyes and that smile. It was just a comfort to have her around,” he said.
Then just five days later, they lost Mississippi County Prosecuting Attorney Darren Cann.
“He not only had been a childhood friend. He was a work companion,” Chief Hearnes said.
“It hit on many levels,” Parker said of Cann’s death. “A personal friend. A colleague. A professional person in the community. It took us all down. The timing was so close that both the funerals almost really needed to be on the same day. And out of respect and in Darren’s nature, he respected the job that Shalonda had given to the community so many years. His family opted to wait another day to have his services.”
And as the year winds to a close, the losses keep coming.
“One of my dear friends from church,” McMikle recalled. “I had texted her the night before they put her on a ventilator.”
But in the protective bubble of a small community, McMikle knows not everyone feels the same about the danger of COVID-19, or the need to protect yourself from it.
“There are people in this community who refuse to wear a mask. There are people in this community that did not stop coming to funerals. Or entertaining. Or doing other things.”
“You know, I just know from my personal illness that I’m glad there was a vaccine that is available for me.”
And both hope that, beyond the politics and opinions, their friends and neighbors can cherish the time they have now as we all still face an uncertain future.
“Regardless of what your political thoughts are. Your concerns. Your rights. If you get sick, try to get....at least have a conversation with a doctor or a nurse practitioner or someone,” Parker said.
“We say we don’t know when our next breath is coming,” McMikle said. “We don’t know if we’re going to have tomorrow. And we say those clichés so freely. This has taught us, I think, all that it can be one day. It can be. Because you can become so sick so quickly. And I hope it’s put a sense of seriousness to life. Of what’s important. Of valuing family and friends.”
The funeral industry is also being impacted by the supply chain issues we’ve told you about.
Parker and McMikle said most of our local funeral homes go through the same St. Louis supplier and it can take weeks to get in certain caskets and other needed items.
Copyright 2021 KFVS. All rights reserved.