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Public Service and American “Deathcare”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Staci M. Zavattaro
April 26, 2020

Don Price got a phone call he could never have anticipated: Does Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando have the capacity to bury 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting? While victims of the 2016 massacre were buried in cemeteries throughout the United States and abroad, the publicly owned city cemetery became a focal point of protestors and mourners during four burials. Don, the now retired City of Orlando sexton—the cemetery manager—had to show enormous empathy, emotional labor and creativity when helping mourners through a difficult time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the need to improve our understanding of public organizations’ role in deathcare. There is now infamous drone footage of workers digging mass graves on New York’s Hart Island, where unclaimed virus victims would go for either temporary or final burial. Refrigerator trucks line streets to act as makeshift morgues as hospitals run out of space. Medical examiners have scrambled with the increase in bodies, not to mention the associated paperwork that accompanies dying.

We are seeing a critical missing component of common public sector emergency management: not including medical examiners, cemetery managers and other deathcare professionals in planning and mitigation strategies. Crisis plans and training exercises should go beyond capacity building and resilience to include planning for what happens to bodies when morgue spaces become full. How are funeral home workers protected? How can medical examiners handle increased capacity? Are bureaucratic systems for issuing death certificates able to respond with speed, or are there more administrative burdens placed on mourning family members? Can municipal and other public cemeteries handle the bodies?

With death surrounding us, the question becomes whether public organizations are going to shift emergency planning to rethink capacity-building around deathcare. I spent 2019 researching municipal cemetery management, speaking with 35 cemetery managers throughout the United States to understand this often unexplored, yet vitally important, area of public administration better. Many in my study work within limited budgets, without a full staff and within the necessary constraints of public sector purchasing and monetary requirements to fulfill operational promises. They manage cities of the dead while catering to living mourners. They oversee places that people think are spooky, creepy and only meant for ghost tours. We have conditioned ourselves to think of cemeteries as places we go only when we must, not because they are an essential public service and home to a city’s rich history.

Price, who retired from his post after more than 30 years, explained: “From a personal level, you know that this is a job, but it’s not because you take it home. You do. You grieve with every mom who lost a child. You grieve with every dad who lost a child. You grieve with them because you sit in front of them, and you deal with them. And it’s a crazy profession that everything that you do revolves around death. Everything. So then when you try to have fun and you try to have light, it still beats you down. It does.”

COVID-19 and associated social distancing rules have changed the way we mourn. People are no longer allowed to gather for funerals, which are opportunities to not only remember the deceased but also bond with loved ones about happier times. There is a physical disconnect between death and ritual. As Patricia Patterson explained in her research about closure, and how the language surrounding closure gives comfort, public administration touches nearly every part of death, yet it is something we see overrun and patch-worked together during this response.

We hope things “go back to normal” soon, but it is becoming clear that public organizations and administrators must build capacity to handle death when systems are overrun. Some lessons from the public cemetery managers can help.

First, properly fund public cemeteries. Many managers reported drastic staff cuts (from 14 employees to one, in one instance), operations with old maintenance equipment and inadequate records management systems to build needed redundancies. Relying on whims of political leaders does not serve the public cemetery well.

Second, talk openly about deathcare and destigmatize death. Ghost tours are fun and often a way to raise much needed funds for the cemetery, but also they serve to bolster the negative images of cemeteries as places to avoid. Several sextons wished people would better prepare for death, given it is expensive, even when in a public cemetery.

Finally, include cemetery managers and medical examiners in disaster planning. Right now, we see the ramifications every day of a bureaucracy forced to “do more with less” and pass administrative burdens onto the people. A simple change in who sits at the table, sharing lessons learned during and after the pandemic, can drastically alter, positively, the administrative response to deathcare.


Author: Staci M. Zavattaro is associate professor of public administration at the University of Central Florida. She is editor in chief of Administrative Theory & Praxis. Her book, “City Sextons: Tales from Municipal Leaders” is forthcoming with Routledge. She can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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