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Globe Magazine

Thank you for the empathy of ‘last responders’ at funeral homes and cemeteries

The funerals in the social-distancing era don’t offer the same closure, and that’s hardest on families, says former Major League player Richie Hebner.

Richie Hebner in front of a hearse he drives.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

Some people think the offseason grave digging I did throughout my 18-year big league career was a public relations thing. It was not a gimmick. I used a pick and shovel for 35 years. Even in the dead of winter I used to come down to the cemetery. You’d have to use a 90-pound jackhammer to dig in the frozen ground.

My family no longer manages the cemeteries, but I still work at the Ginley Funeral Home. Now I wear a jacket and tie and drive a hearse. It’s a different time. I’ve got to wear a mask. We used to park cars and open doors. We don’t do that anymore.

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Being the “last responder” is tough. It’s very tough. The funerals now are real quick. A family comes into the funeral home for a half-hour. Everybody wears a mask. A priest comes in, says a couple of prayers. [Then] it is over and done with.

There is no closure. It’s hard on the families.

My wife and daughter are both nurses at Norwood Hospital. My other daughter — the youngest — is a nurse at Northwestern [Memorial Hospital], a huge hospital in Chicago. It’s unbelievable what they’re going through, especially the last three months. Every time they go to work I worry about their safety. It goes through your mind all the time. If it doesn’t there’s something wrong with you. I think it’s great what they do. They get a lot of credit, which they deserve.

To tell you the truth, I could care less if baseball comes back at all. People don’t want to hear about a pitcher whining about his $25 million salary when they can’t pay their [expletive] rent. There are a lot of people hurting right now in our country, for goodness sake.

I know what it’s like to lose a baseball job, both as a player, a manager, and a coach. After the 2010 season, I was driving the hearse in a funeral procession and the phone rings and I figure I’m not going to bother the guy in the back so I pick it up.

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It’s the Baltimore Orioles farm system director and he says, “Sorry, we have to let you go.” So I put the phone down, looked in the back and said, “You think you’re having a bad day. I just got [expletive] canned.”

Now I’m 72, and I stay in good shape, walking 3 miles every day. I’m just grateful for waking up and being alive and not being in the back of the hearse that I drive.

—As told to Stan Grossfeld

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Richie Hebner grew up working in his family’s cemetery business, and played for five Major League teams, winning the 1971 World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Interview has been edited and condensed.