‘Sweetheart’ Funeral Director Gives Dignified Farewells to Families Losing Loved Ones to COVID-19
22nd May 2020

His dad, Manuel Trinidad Sr., arrived in the U.S. at 21 from Carolina, Puerto Rico. He loved to fish and was a man of humble means. He had been a wood-cabinet finisher in his last job before a 2005 stroke left him disabled and struggling mentally.

Still, Trinidad made sure his dad was cared for. Never did the devoted son imagine that his dad would pass away like this.

“He was the type of person who would go out and do anything for anyone. Everyone loved my father,” Trinidad says. “I got very upset that this finished him off. He had been hospitalized multiple times over his life, but he had survived many times.”

It was a quick end. One day, his dad, 79, was gasping for air and struggling to breathe. Trinidad called 911, and after paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital, that was the last time he would see him alive.

“My father was in the hospital alone. I couldn’t go in the ambulance. I’m pretty strong,” he says, his voice trailing off.

But the experience, he says, was made bearable by a compassionate and perhaps unlikely funeral director named Caroline Schrank, a 55-year-old Jewish single mother of two teen boys who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

She stepped in to take charge amid the chaos, and in doing so, gave Trinidad great peace.

“Caroline, fuggedaboutit,” Trinidad says, offering the ultimate Bronxism to honor her role in guiding him through his father’s death. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know how I would have handled this. She was such a sweetheart.”

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For many New York area families, thoughtfully caring for a loved one’s remains after coronavirus becomes a serious problem. Hundreds of people have died overnight. Hospital morgues have been filled. Tractor-trailer trucks have been brought in to hold the overflow. And loved ones have been panicked with their own fears of being infected just as funeral homes are deluged with requests for services while everyone has been urged by authorities that they need to stay at home.

Schrank represents the hundreds of funeral directors across the country who have stepped up in unprecedented circumstances to help families honor their loved ones.

Through people she has worked with, she has been connected during the pandemic with many Latino families who have lost family members. And they have turned to her through recommendations inside their hard-hit community as someone who will work with them, and give them grace, in their time of loss.

“There's no instruction manual for this," Schrank tells PEOPLE. "Their loved one was taken to the hospital, and they never see them again. Then suddenly they're [faced with] burying them. They cant have [the funeral service] they want, so I'm trying to give people just a little something that makes them feel better."

“When you're living and breathing someone's dying, you sometimes forget what they were like when they were living," she adds. "My philosophy is not one size fits all."

In the midst of a quarantine, some funerals continue to take place. And Schrank has had to eschew tradition for creativity. She has assembled a team to pick up the dead, deliver them for burial prep or cremation, and to hold services in the only ways possible. She recently created a Zoom funeral for a family from Barbados who gathered in their dress clothes for a service on their computers, phones and tablets. There was a curated musical hymn list and a minister. All of it helped to build a connection, even if they were not face to face.

“You think it’s a step back or a default,” she says of using Zoom and drones to give people a service. “But honestly, it’s so incredibly healing. To have something. The locations may be different but the feelings are there.”

Schrank is somewhat new to funeral directing after an earlier career as a production coordinator setting up photography shoots for magazines and choosing locations for fashion catalog shoots. She also has a background in event and party planning, which gave her skills in juggling myriad details—just as she must do now.

The deaths of her parents inspired her to take on a career in the funeral industry. Nursing her father throughout his illness and consequent death in 2008, she found his funeral experience, which was held at home, “incredibly healing.”

As friends and family shared stories and remembrances of her father, she was touched by the moving memorial ceremony and resulting closure. She recalls that he would joke that he visited McDonald’s frequently because, as he told friends, he owned stock in the company. On the buffet table at his gathering was a tray of McDonald’s food—a small but personal touch that said the small details of his life were seen, even in death.

When her mother died in 2016, Schrank, a graduate of the University of Vermont, stepped in. She had been the principal caregiver to a woman who lived life to the fullest, and she was tasked with providing a funeral that satisfied all her mother’s particular wishes. That personalization is what she says she hopes to bring to everyone she works with.

Schrank attended the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City and graduated in 2015. She completed a one-year residency in Manhattan and became a licensed funeral director, founding her own company, Down to Earth Funerals.

She sees her role this way—to make the experience one that honors a loved one, but also honors the heart of those left behind.

“The idea that you can be two things at once is very prevalent in funerals. You can be happy and sad at once. But I think the funeral home industry has infused this sense of sadness,” Schrank says. “I feel like there is so much onus on the griever. By having something more casual, it makes it easier. The task of receiving people is hard when you are grieving. The funeral industry has been so one size fits all. And I think that’s not the way it has to be.”

Schrank never imagined the otherworldly circumstances that she would find in spring 2020. Neither did Carmen Cabassa, 40, who was connected to Schrank after her grandmother passed away from COVID-19 at age 91.

Cabassa lives in Lansdowne, Maryland, but was her grandmother’s medical proxy. The two, while living states apart, were inseparable. They texted, talked and were on FaceTime daily, discussing the storylines in her grandmother’s telenovelas. Her grandmother, who lived in the Bronx, encouraged Cabassa to never give up studying, as she is currently completing an MBA.

Ana Celia Perez arrived in New York City from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico to live near family. She raised 15 children. She could not read or write and did not understand English well. She cared for many children in her extended family, including Cabassa, who was by her side from age 10.

Perez made her young charge strong coffee and stayed up with her as she did her homework. She was independent and hard-headed. She taught Cabassa to cook and was her rock. Even as Cabassa later got married and lived in Maryland, Perez was a constant, her very best friend.

“I was her baby. And I spoiled her,” Cabassa says. “She was such a big kid… She was loving, caring and willing to help anyone in need — and that is one of the things she taught me, to help those less fortunate.”

Her passing has left Cabassa gutted. “Now I’m so lonely. I want to call her. She was a happy person and loved to talk and she would always tell stories about her days in Puerto Rico. She really was the matriarch of the family," she says.

Her coronavirus story is like many others. Perez, who had congestive heart failure, entered the hospital with a bad case of pneumonia and fluid on her lungs on April 9 and was dead by April 13. And as grief set in from her death, Cabassa began to panic. She was the family’s go-to person. And she was also stung with hurt.

“My heart goes out to everyone. I’m sure I’m not the only one to go through this in New York. But there were hundreds of miles between us and not being able to be with her, to see her and say goodbye—it breaks my heart," she says. “You are already feeling that so many people are dying or hurt—and then this happens to you and you don’t know where to begin or how it ends. Everyone was falling apart. In trying to organize this, finding a funeral home was a challenge in itself. Everyone was over capacity.”

And then Schrank stepped in. Cabassa, a grants and contracts analyst at Johns Hopkins University, said her aunt was the one who found Schrank, but she's not sure exactly how the connection was made.

“With the distance it was not like I could go to New York City and try to find locations for a funeral. The amount of people who were dying—I was trying to call and I couldn’t even get through. My mind was just spinning," Cabassa says.

Schrank’s team stepped in quickly and received her grandmother’s body from the hospital— a big relief—and sent a picture to her as proof. “She said, ‘Your grandma is safe. Don’t worry.’ I was skeptical, but she kept in touch with me the whole time. Texting, emails. She was just right there for me every day. She always responded. She kept her word.”

“Caroline really just made it personal," Cabassa says. "I didn’t want my grandmother to be stranded at the hospital. I didn’t want her to be lost in the shuffle. Some of the places I was calling, they were kind of cold. Caroline was there to really listen and make me feel like my grandmother wasn’t just another person.”

Perez was cremated in upstate New York and Schrank has arranged for her ashes to be delivered, through the help and cooperation of a network of supportive funeral directors, to a funeral home close to Cabassa’s home.

They will assist in transferring the remains to a proper urn. Cabassa says the family hopes to take those ashes back to Puerto Rico when it is safe for them to travel.

While she remains tearful and is processing a great loss, she, like many other families, says the time was made easier by Schrank, who for many was not the first—but their last responder. Her quiet work in desperate times has protected their memories and been their blessing.

As of Thursday afternoon, there have been at least 1.5 million cases and 94,202 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to The New York Times. There have been at least 361,313 cases and 28,663 deaths in New York.

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