One of the first people I met while living in New York was a funeral director named Michael Fengullo.
The Brooklyn-born, broad-shouldered, fifty-year-old man has made his living burying the dead for over three decades. The life-long Italian bachelor has helped thousands send off and put away their loved ones. When it comes to funerals, this typical, loud New Yorker has seen it all.
That was until the pandemic hit.
Mr. Fengullo’s world has been completely upended. Before the pandemic, Michael’s team usually took care of seven funerals per week. Since April, he has done at least that many in a day.
For all the praise we’ve given frontline workers, Michael still feels overlooked. “They just don’t know how hard we work. All this appreciation talk is bullshit because they still don’t recognize my value,” Michael angrily explains to me over a call in between funerals. “We work 14–15 hours a day. We don’t need the fucking horns at 7pm. Or jets flying over our city. They need to acknowledge our dignity.”
In August, Pope Francis gave a stirring speech on dignity. He observed, “We have developed a dangerous habit of clinging on to distorted views of people, a gaze that ignores his or her dignity or character.” He advised all countries to examine their past efforts to extend dignity to all their people. He feared this would be a component that all of us are dangerously overlooking.
The head of the Catholic Church defined dignity as the quest for nobility, sense of value, well-mannered disposition, appreciation of one’s societal contribution, and being respectful. But dignity also means compassion, service to others, being ethical, and having meaning.
The first Jesuit pope highlighted what we all know: 2020 has shone a spotlight on the erosion of dignity in our society. The set of decorum we once cherished has withered in all aspects of society: culture, work, and politics.
Earlier this month, a video about an LA restaurant owner’s frustration over lockdown hypocrisy went viral. The manager, Angela Marsden, complained about her self-financed business being shut down while a cafeteria for a 200-person production crew was set up adjacent to her restaurant. “I have risked and sacrificed everything. This place means the world to me,” Angela lamented. The mayor’s tone-deaf response, claiming the decision was about science and resources, showed he didn’t understand the dignity she derived from her work. Worse, he didn’t care to.
“During this pandemic, our efforts for smart public health measures have made us overlook the dignity so many derive from their day-to-day lives”
Angela is not alone in her despair. Employers from every business I patronized over the past nine months wanted to speak more about dignity than their actual operations.
Owners wanted to keep their businesses open because it gave them purpose. Doing so made their children proud of them. They were trying to pay their employees because they considered them family.
Coffee shop owners sorely missed jump starting their clients’ days. Bartenders wished they could provide more patrons a Happy Hour respite from a long day. They all believed they were central pillars of the community.
Everyone understood the risks of keeping their operations open. They made it clear to their clientele. All spoke extensively about their support for risk mitigation measures but were bewildered as to why media outlets blindly labeled them culprits in spreading the virus.
The last time I got a haircut, my barber, Mouroukh, tried not to cry as she told me about how poorly her business was treated by local health officials. “I love styling people’s hair. I love my customers. I have been here for twenty years. I can’t tell you how many hair cuts I have done for birthday parties, graduations, and weddings,” she explained. “We have spent thousands to make sure we are being safe. We’ve invited local health officials to come see our safety measures. Instead, I am getting warning notices my business is a COVID super-spreader and anti-science.”
During this pandemic, our efforts for smart public health measures have made us overlook the dignity so many derive from their day-to-day lives: the emotional satisfaction entrepreneurs derive from creating something from the ground up; the significance business owners feel from providing a vital service to their clients; the appreciation teachers feel from inspiring a group of students; the meaning parents get from volunteering for their kid’s extracurricular event; the frontline workers who sacrifice everything to just go to their job; and the countless who no longer have theirs.
It would be easy to label COVID-19 as the sole rapid force in our degradation of dignity. The truth is its decline has long been in the motion. “People in your profession talk about COVID being an accelerator,” Michael tells me after a 18-hour shift. “This ain’t no accelerator. It’s clear journalists have no clue what that they’re talking about. Where have they been? Things have been fucked for a long time.”
He’s right that our cultural norms about dignity have been long broken. Modern history is rife with examples of how our worst inclinations have surfaced while we purposely strip away the empathy, compassion, and deep care for the less fortunate — all core tenets of dignity.
Those at the bottom of the economic food chain have been political pawns with their real concerns going unaddressed. Workers in decaying industries are often seen as two-dimensional figures, too ignorant to realize they are stymying economic, environmental, and cultural progress. Low-skilled workers are deemed cognitively nascent by those with advanced degrees (an issue I wrote about two years ago).
A politician who worked as a bartender to pay off loans and support her widowed mother has her former job constantly mocked… by her colleagues (most of whom are educated, wealthy, and know better).
I love living in cities, but it is a common pastime for metro dwellers to condescendingly wonder how non-urban residents can find purpose, meaning, and joy.
We may be a deeply polarized nation, but red and blue states both share the inability to recognize the dignity of their political foes.
Social media brings no shortage of case studies in tarnishing dignity. When female politicians talk about substantive policy online, they are more likely to be called a slut or a whore and criticized for their looks (a fact no woman is likely surprised to hear). The one that deeply troubled me is the hacker who posted the credit card debt of the parents who lost their kids in the Sandy Hook shooting.
The reasons for dignity’s demise are clear: a supposed free and fair market that is neither free nor fair; increased digital contact which reduces people to flat characters where one’s humanity is never recognized; and an overemphasis on self-fulfillment and branding where we broadcast our own talents while not appreciating those of others.
Additionally, a decline in strong, urban communities minimizes our chance to capture dignity. In his fantastic report, Dignity and Density, urban policy writer, Will Wilkinson, explains, “Suburbia gave us endless space to realize we needed others. In our desire to distance from others, our opportunity to build a dignified life interacting with others, serving others, and respecting others eventually eroded.”
There will be countless articles and discussions highlighting the decline in dignity (many aptly blaming the outgoing Commander-in-Chief for his part). What is more important is how we create a new dignity code, one updated for the post-pandemic world where dignity is recognized, emphasized, and maintained.
We need to begin by modernizing our understanding of this term. There are two components of dignity. One notion is around one’s outward conduct, use of language, and level of maturity. The other is focused on having worth, a sense of honor, and/or acknowledged value to others.
For workers like Michael, Angela, and Mouroukh, a post-COVID dignity code must focus on the latter definition, one that is laser-attentive on rebuilding a collective decency, valorizing merit, humanity, and respect and that distinguishes virtue from virtue signaling.
It must also understand that dignity is delicate. When one feels they have a less than dignified experience, it’s hard to regain a sense of dignity in that situation. If one believes they’ve lost their opportunity to live a dignified life, it’s nearly impossible to feel that level of worth again.
Finally, it is important to understand restoring our collective dignity is vital to any other rebuilding efforts. Reassembling society with a sharper focus on value, honor, and compassion is paramount to our collective social-well being. If we fail to restore a decorum of decency, any other strides to stitch back our country will be kneecapped.
On Christmas Eve, I FaceTimed Michael. He looked as if he had aged 10 years since our last conversation in early December. The temporary pause in funeral surges seen in the summer and early fall is over. He and his team now struggle to find enough caskets and burial sites. Most families are no longer allowed to say an in-person goodbye to those they lost. Two of his longtime colleagues passed away from COVID. He hasn’t seen any of his family or friends since late February. He is worried his job and the prolonged pandemic might prevent him from burying his father or mother if they pass away.
“Life has always been a struggle, man. Ever since my parents immigrated here. Nothing comes easy. People don’t see that. Neither the politicians or mother-fuckers protesting the lockdown appreciates what we do,” a beaten-down Michael bemoans. With his eyes slowly tearing up, he tells me, “We’ve been working hard. Now, we’re working harder. Now, we’ve been hit the hardest. There ain’t no dignity in that.”