'Tomorrow is not promised'

Funeral home director says about half of funerals are now for covid-related deaths

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OKEECHOBEE — COVID-19 is not only taking a toll on first responders in our city, but our last responders are facing challenges of their own. Often overlooked, those who tend to a patient last face the same risks as those who tend to them first.

At Buxton and Bass Funeral Home, funeral director Matt Buxton said they just take things one day at a time and do a lot of praying. Probably half of the deaths they see now are COVID-19 related.

“It’s very, very real. Something to be careful about,” he said. “It wasn’t like it was made out to be back in the beginning, but this go around, it is significant.”

Covering a large area from the Treasure Coast to Palm Beach, it has even gotten to the point now that Buxton and his staff have picked up people who died at home who had covid. Before, it was always the hospital or nursing home or something like that he explained. “In most of the places we go to, they make us completely garb up.”

So far, none of the staff have contracted covid as a result of their jobs at the funeral home. A couple employees have had it, but it did not come from the job. Although they do take universal precautions when handling the body of someone who had covid, they have always taken precautions. “We always wear gloves, and depending on the circumstances, maybe a face shield or a mask of some sort, a respirator. Especially when we embalm. You should really be covered head to toe for that.”

“I’m a member of several funeral groups on Facebook and haven’t seen anything about funeral directors or embalmers dying from covid.” The best policy though is to treat everyone like they are infected. Buxton has embalmed some highly infectious bodies, including those with HIV or Hepatitis. This is nothing new. “You just have to be careful. At times you double glove.”

He has done some research and has found the virus does not linger long in the body after death. “It’s like a parasite. It wants to live off of something else in optimal conditions. When the body is not the optimal condition any longer, it doesn’t last.”

In the end, Buxton feels everyone just has to make their own decision about things like masks and vaccines. When they hold a funeral service, they leave the mask choice up to the family. If they want guests to wear masks, they put up a sign asking visitors to wear a mask. They trust everyone to use common sense, and for the most part, they do. “We have been very fortunate that Okeechobee people have policed themselves.”

Paul Buxton opened the doors of the original funeral home in August 1980, and his son Matt has been working alongside him since he was 5 years old. “I had my first three-piece suit when I was 5 years old. I would help my mom run flowers and then stand by my dad’s side to close out the service." Beginning at age 9 or 10, he helped his dad with removals of bodies. “We don’t bring stretchers into the homes. We bring a collapsible gurney and actually carry people out. I don’t know how I did it. It was just me and Dad. But we did it.”

Matt’s daughter Morgan is in school to become a funeral director and will probably start her internship in December. She plans to come back to Okeechobee and work with her dad. “She will be licensed in another year and a half or so, and I can’t wait.” Matt’s second daughter, Dayton, is also in college but has no interest in the family business.

Although he is often exhausted, Buxton said he is not worried. “I’m not worried in the least about getting it from doing my job,” he said. “As funeral directors and embalmers, we have been taking care of people for years with every infection under the sun.”

“Tomorrow is not promised. We have to value every day,” said Buxton.

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