A few days a week, a woman arrives at the Metropolitan Plant and Flower Exchange — a squat, lime-green bunker along Route 17 North in Paramus, New Jersey. They know her there by her hospital scrubs.
She picks up her standing order: yellow daffodils. If there aren’t any daffodils, she’ll take carnations — yellow, please. That’s the most important part — bright yellow.
She brings the flowers with her to work at Hackensack University Medical Center. They aren’t for her office. They’re not for co-workers or patients. She carries them out back and walks into a parking garage.
Her name is Tanisha Brunson-Malone, 41, a forensic technician at the hospital’s morgue. She performs autopsies and oversees funeral home pickups of patients who have died.
Up two short flights of stairs to a closed-off floor. Where there would normally be parked cars, there are now three long trailers, with loud motors powering their refrigerators.
Inside each trailer are bodies in body bags, stacked on shelves three high, coronavirus victims awaiting pick up.
Brunson-Malone enters each trailer and walks the aisle between the rows, pausing at each new body bag. There, she carefully places a flower on top.
“One or two, it depends on how many flowers I have,” she said. “Sometimes I run out. I’ll go after work to go pick up more flowers. I know in the morning I’ll need more.”
The trailers are heavily restricted. Very few people have access — not even family.
Brunson-Malone’s gesture is all but invisible, seen by only some colleagues and the funeral home workers who arrive to claim bodies. Her flowers are for the dead alone, a fleeting brush with dignity and decorum on the way from one sad place to another.
“I was kind of like their voice,” Brunson-Malone said, “because they were voiceless.”
Her journey to this place was not a straight line but a sure one. Her mother tells her that in third grade in Newark, with no family background in the field whatsoever, she announced that she wanted to be a funeral home director.
“What intrigued me about it? I have no idea,” she said. “I’m fascinated with the human body and how it works and how things stop.”
She worked for a medical examiner’s office before switching lanes and becoming a flight attendant for five years, then was drawn back to her interest in anatomy. She has worked at the hospital for six years, three of them full-time after a period as a substitute.
The coronavirus struck with the speed and impact of an avalanche. The morgue, under renovation, was immediately overwhelmed, and the refrigerated trucks arrived to store bodies. The largest holds 38; the smallest two, 18 apiece.
Brunson-Malone oversees the three trailers in the garage and a fourth outside. Someone built a wooden bridge from a loading dock to one trailer door to make it easier to roll gurneys inside. Plastic sheeting is draped around the garage to block the view from apartments next door.
“Opening up a trailer every single day, not knowing if you’re going to have a few bodies — and it’s always full, full, full,” she said. “They were dying at alarming rates, alone by themselves without their families.”
Like so many, it wore her down, until she landed on an idea during a shift.
“I asked my supervisor one day, late in the afternoon, ‘Do you mind if I buy flowers and place them on the body bags?’” Brunson-Malone recalled. “She was like, ‘Sure, if that’s what you want to do.’ ”
She went to Metropolitan Plant and Flower, where the industrial facade hides rows and rows of bright arrangements and the air feels cleaner than outside, the fresh smells passing even through the most secure mask. She told the manager she wanted as many yellow daffodils as they could sell her.
“She asked, ‘What are you doing with them?’ and I told her, and she started crying,” Brunson-Malone said. “She said, ‘I can’t deal with it — I’ll give you a percentage off.’ I don’t think she was expecting me to give her that answer.”
That was in March. Bringing the flowers to the trailers felt good, so she kept it up.
“It was sort of therapeutic for me,” she said.
David Feeney, the director of Feeney Funeral Home in nearby Ridgewood, recently visited the hospital to pick up a body, his first time there since the trailers arrived. Brunson-Malone led him and two others toward one.
“I had a feeling of dread and sadness,” he recalled last week. “No funeral director has ever seen this. Going into a tractor-trailer morgue?”
He stepped carefully inside. He is 63 and moved with caution — “Your radar is up, making sure you don’t bang into something and rip your PPE,” he said, referring to his personal protective equipment.
Inside were rows of white body bags. It took a second to register what was on top of them.
“I looked around and said, ‘Hey Tanisha, what’s up with all these flowers on the people?’ ” he said. “‘Do people actually leave flowers?’”
“She said, ‘No, I did that,’ ” he said. “ ‘I just feel like it’s the right thing to do.’ ” He fought a lump in his throat the first several times he told the story: “All three of us from the funeral home just stood there, so stunned.”
She said she spends around $100 a week on flowers. Sometimes it’s easier to deliver them on her day off.
“Easter Sunday, I just became overwhelmed with sadness,” she said. “I needed to do something.”
She called the florist.
They speak of her as a sort of hero at the florist — “I think what she’s doing is amazing,” Jen Libby, an employee, said last week. But Brunson-Malone, a fresh printout of names of the dead tucked under her arm as she approached the trailers Thursday afternoon, said she saw the flowers as but a small gesture for the people they mark.
The one soul that actually gets to experience a moment’s pleasure in them is her own.
“It was something I just did,” she said, “out of being emotionally exhausted and depleted.”