'Every single life matters': North Carolina families mourn for 500K Americans killed by COVID-19

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The number of Americans killed by COVID-19 surpassed 500,000, according to Johns Hopkins University, a tragic figure far surpassing the toll of any other nation in the world.

Logically, 500,000 is only slightly more than the population of the City of Raleigh (483,579); it's roughly equal to 25 sellout crowds at PNC Arena (capacity 19,722); the U.S. death toll is now approximately 168 times the total lives lost on Sept. 11, and now stands at approximately 3/4 of the total number of deaths that were recorded in the U.S. during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Logically, the updated death toll means the virus has killed one in every 656 Americans. Emotionally, however, Americans may not ever understand the weight of that number.

"Every single life matters. Every single life is a world," Rabbi Matt Soffer, spiritual leader of Durham's Judea Reform Congregation, told ABC11. "I can't get to 500,000 in my mental capacity. So I'm left with this question - how can I connect with the other 500,000 families?"

Though his professional role frequently puts him in touch with mourners, Soffer himself needed consoling after his mother, Bess, died of COVID-19 on January 6th. The 68-year old contracted the virus just before Thanksgiving and spent 40 days in the hospital.

"There are two layers of grief I'm trying to make my way through," Rabbi Soffer said. "One is this unfathomable idea that my mom died and she's not coming back. I get that she died. I don't get that I won't get to see her again. The second part of it is really the trauma of those 40 days. The trauma of feeling like every morning, every day constantly tracking her wellness or illness was a separate weight."

Soffer, as well, said he's still trying to get over the fact that he couldn't give his mother the kind of funeral he learned to cherish in his rabbinate.

"In a normal funeral we have this very cathartic experience in Judaism in having a swift movement from body to ashes and dust. And we're with each other. I went from Wednesday to Thursday to Friday to Saturday to Sunday to finally Monday for the funeral all alone in a house 400 miles from my family (in Durham) and one mile away from my dying mom, and one mile away from my dad, who was also alone. That's not right. My ancestors who created this tradition never imagined that as way through comfort and healing."

The experience, however, has emerged as the rule and not the exception; as COVID-19 patients overwhelm hospitals, COVID-19 victims overrun the nation's funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoria.

In Los Angeles, the nation's largest cemetery has been alerting families to a potential one month wait for burials.

"The whole system is under stress at the moment so everything is just taking longer than normal," said Rose Hills president Patrick Monroe. "After the Thanksgiving holiday we began to see our daily call volume nearly double."

In Brooklyn, New York, gravediggers logged 14-15 daily shifts.

""We haven't seen anything like this, even September 11th wasn't like this," President of Green-Wood Cemetery Richard Moylan said. "I mean that was shock -- a one-time event. This is just continuing. It's ... calm sadness has just overtaken the place."

In Houston, funeral homes reported a 200 percent surge in demand, especially among Latino communities.

North Carolina is home to some 950 licensed funeral homes; advocates and trade associations are now reporting an unprecedented collaboration.

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"Things have changed where we find ourselves working together, colleagues, funeral homes, cemeteries, our staff," Steven Lyons, owner of Raleigh's Lyons Funeral Home and member of the NC Board of Funeral Service. "We're stretched to the limit because of the number of families we're privileged to serve from time to time. We'd call a colleague - do you have people who could help me out? Do you have a gravedigger because mine is busy. It's just that simple. We're all working together."

Brad Bailey, the director of Wake Memorial Park, said there is particular demand on cremations, which he says now accounts for 85 percent of internments.

"It's more socially acceptable and families are finding it more cost effective," Bailey told ABC11, adding that this change started to evolve even before the pandemic. Looking ahead, Bailey expects the more virtual nature of end-of-life decisions will also endure.

"The funeral directors who are still coordinating and taking care of legal matters can still be compassionate, but more and more they'll be doing it over the phone, video chats, PDF files and online document signatures."

For Rabbi Soffer, what he wants in the future is a national acknowledgment of all these changes - a permanent memorial in Washington, D.C.

"I want a place," Soffer said. "I want a place to feel close to, and not just to my mom - close to other people whose tears feel the same down their cheek as ours."
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