A funeral home copes with the surge during the coronavirus pandemic

During normal times, Joe Ruggiero Jr. might hold 25 funerals a month; this April there have been 71. Due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, his family’s funeral home in East Boston is so overrun that the tribute lounge and cafe normally used to display portraits of the departed has been turned into a makeshift storage space. A thin white sheet of plastic held together with binder clips is all that separates the hallway from the caskets. The white board in the office downstairs is overflowing with funerals. Three on Wednesday. Four on Thursday. Five on Friday. Joe Jr., his son, Joe III, and his daughter, Catie, work tirelessly to make sure that everything is as perfect as it can be in order to bring some comfort to families in grief. They solve an endless string of coronavirus riddles, like what do you bury someone in when their family can’t go back into a nursing home to retrieve their clothing? Or how do you explain to families that they can’t have more than 10 people inside at a time? The biggest one of course, is how do you console someone when you can’t place a comforting hand on their shoulder? Families filter into Ruggiero Family Memorial Home all faced with the prospect of saying goodbye to a loved one without the comfort of an embrace. I photographed six funerals over three days, each death caused by COVID-19. A woman told me that her 100-year-old mother would have kept going if not for the virus. Her wake and funeral had six people in attendance. You could hear a pin drop in the chapel as they sat silently in rows of chairs spaced 6 feet apart. At the next funeral, there were a line of people in masks and gloves waiting outside to pay their respects to a 57-year-old father who was taken by COVID-19. Many used their cellphones to stream the funeral for those who couldn’t be there. One family member just wanted people to see how serious this was so that they would stay indoors.--By Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Matt Tauro, Nick Turco, and John Lockhead moved the casket of a woman who died of COVID-19 in East Boston to the hearse parked outside of Ruggiero Family Memorial Home. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Matt Tauro held roses to give to family members at Holy Cross Cemetery for Annette Nazzaro’s funeral. Nazzaro, who lived to be 100, died of COVID-19. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Funeral director Joe Ruggiero Jr. inspected a suit that his daughter, Catie, found hanging in the closet for a client to wear. Because so many people are dying in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, families are not able to get back inside to collect the clothes that they would have dressed their loved ones in for their burial, so Ruggiero has contracted a company to have clothing delivered for burials. In this case, the coat was an old one of his. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Chairs were arranged to allow for social distancing to protect against the spread of coronavirus as funeral service assistant Miguel Vargas set up for a visitation. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Jim Leo, a Deacon at St. John the Evangelist Church in Winthrop, stood beside the casket of a man who died of coronavirus as he waited for the family to arrive for a socially distanced graveside service. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
A mourner held a cellphone out to record as she attended Santos A. Rivas’s funeral from inside her car. Due to strict social distancing guidelines, only 10 people are allowed outside of their cars for graveside services at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Vanessa Rivas prayed alongside her mother, Rosa A. Martinez Rivas, and brother Danny A. Rivas during the funeral service for her father, Santos A. Rivas, who died after a battle with COVID-19. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
At Ruggiero Family Memorial Home in East Boston, apprentice funeral director Catie Ruggiero looked through a bag of clothing belonging to a man who died of coronavirus. Catie’s father, Joe, had tried to return the bag to the man’s relatives at his funeral, but they asked if he would look through it for fear that it might be contaminated with coronavirus. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Family members of Annette Nazzaro maintain a social distance during her wake at the Ruggiero Family Memorial Home in East Boston. Nazzaro lived to be 100 before succumbing to coronavirus. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Family members embraced as friends and family paid their respects from afar, lining the street in their cars surrounding the gravesite of Santos A. Rivas, who passed away from coronavirus. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Funeral director Joe Ruggiero Jr., founder of his family’s business, Ruggiero Family Memorial Home in East Boston, looked up at the white board full of funerals for the week as he tried to figure out the next day’s staffing beside his daughter, Catie. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
After tending to three funerals earlier in the day, funeral director Joe Ruggiero III got a call shortly after 8pm to retrieve the body of a man who had died at home. Ruggiero and assistant funeral director Nick Verrocchi worked together to move the man’s body out of his home in East Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
A mourner was reflected in the rearview mirror of his car as he attended Santos A. Rivas’s funeral. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Funeral workers moved a casket out for a funeral as another was brought in to set up for a wake inside Ruggiero Family Memorial Home in East Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Apprentice funeral director Catie Ruggiero sprayed each chair with Lysol following a wake. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Mourners broke down during a wake at Ruggiero Family Memorial Home for Santos A. Rivas. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Matt Tauro, Michaelangelo Gerardi, John Lockhead, and Nick Turco waited for the family to arrive at a graveside funeral held for a man who died of COVID-19. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Catie Ruggiero (left) and Jacqueline Brangiforte, both apprentice funeral directors, transported a body from Melrose Wakefield Hospital. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
A mourner held out two phones to FaceTime Santos A. Rivas’s funeral for people who could not be there in person. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Chairs were pushed against the wall to make room for caskets in a makeshift storage area that Ruggiero Family Memorial Home usually uses as a tribute room. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Fr. Eric Bennett prayed over the casket of a man who died of COVID-19. Because the man’s family live in Italy, where they were in lockdown, they were unable to travel here for the funeral. The only other person in attendance was funeral director Joe Ruggiero III. Under normal circumstances the man’s body would have been shipped back to Italy, but because of restrictions put into place due to coronavirus that wasn’t possible. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Funeral director Joe Ruggiero moved a body into a makeshift storage area. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Matt Tauro carried flowers that adorned the casket to the limo so that they could be brought to the cemetery for a graveside service being held for a woman who died of coronavirus. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
A message scrawled on the back windshield of a car was seen during Santos A. Rivas’s funeral. The mourner who wrote it wasn’t able to get out of the car to stand beside Rivas’s grave. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
A mourner broke down during a wake for Santos A. Rivas at the funeral home. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
During a graveside service at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Watertown, flowers were placed on the casket of a woman who died of coronavirus. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
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