Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Rochester mortician Thomas Gainey has been working 78-hour weeks.
“It’s been horrible out here, trying to keep up with death,” says Gainey, 61, the sole owner and operator of Angel Hills Funeral Chapel on St. Paul Street. “There’s been a lot of homicides, suicides, baby boomers dying from COVID. There’s a lot of overdoses, too, kids between the ages of 18 and 24.”
A week before his conversation with the Rochester Beacon, in early March, Gainey had three COVID-related deaths.
“I inhale so much embalming fluid,” he says. “I’m going on an ocean cruise to breath fresh air … to get everything out. To think and just relax. If I don’t get away from this stuff, it can get to me.”
Gainey, who works alone, averages four funerals a week, but some weeks he prepares as many as 15 bodies for burial.
“I’m much busier than I used to be,” says Gainey, who predicts it will get worse.
“Things got crazy when the pandemic hit. We were already dealing with homicides that were backing up the funeral home,” he says. “Then, with COVID, we can’t keep up.”
He notes that one or two adolescent boys die violently every month in Rochester.
“Last year there were (81) homicides,” says Gainey. “The way things are going, we are definitely going to top that number. It’s happening all over the country—not just here—Black men killing each other.
“It’s guns, all guns. I don’t know where they are coming in from. The violence has gotten a lot worse,” he adds. “When I do a funeral, everyone has gun except for me; they’re all packing.”
Gainey says he doesn’t know to what degree the homicides are related to the stress of growing up Black and in poverty.
“There’s never been many jobs,” he notes. “A lot of guys are selling drugs, then there are territory wars.
“The young Black male population is going to disappear—that’s what I think,” Gainey says. “Nothing is being done; they’re just letting them die. These young guys standing out there with guns on Jefferson Avenue–they have nothing to do and nowhere to work, except for minimum wage.”
According to ACT Rochester’s 2020 survey, “Race and Ethnicity in the Nine County Greater Rochester Area,” African Americans in the Rochester region are more likely to live in poverty than African Americans nationwide—34 percent versus 24 percent.
In April 2021, Rochester and Monroe County crisis response teams reported a threefold increase in calls in the city of Rochester, primarily to help individuals who were suicidal or experiencing some type of mental health crisis. During the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, cases among Blacks in Monroe County were four times that of whites.
Like many Rochesterians, Gainey formerly worked at Eastman Kodak Co. When the company began downsizing, he went to mortician school, graduating in 2007.
“I wasn’t expecting to be this busy,” he says. “I wanted to be an undertaker (and) just make a living.”
Gainey, who lives in an apartment at the top floor of the funeral home, says he needs the mid-winter rest.
“The phone never stops,” he says. “When you get so many bodies—it’s unbelievable. But I’m not complaining. I’m helping people.”
Angel Hills Funeral Chapel is temporarily closed for renovations. When he returns, his clients will be there, says Gainey, who recently embalmed a 16-year-old boy who was shot to death.
“I tear up all the time,” says the funeral director. “It breaks you down. It’s one reason I’m shutting down and taking a deep breath.”
Gainey says the most comfort he can offer families is to have the deceased look like themselves.
“I’m no grief counselor,” he says. “I do the best I can do.”
Donna Jackel is a Rochester-area freelance writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.