The man consoling mourners and directing his staff at Paradise Memorial Funeral Home might look familiar if he wasn't wearing a mask.
It's baseball Hall of Famer Andre Dawson.
Owning a funeral home took some getting used to, Dawson said Thursday, and now he's adjusting to life as a mortician during a global pandemic.
Thus the mask. He wears gloves, too, and explains to customers that services in the chapel must be a lot shorter than normal and limited to 10 people.
“It's very sad,” he said. “It's very sad. Because people mourn and grieve differently, and they're not getting through that process as they would under normal circumstances. You see a lot of hurt and pain.”
Dawson, 65, entered the business in 2003, when he became an investor in his younger brother's funeral home. An opportunity to own and operate Paradise Memorial arose 12 years ago.
“It kind of fell into my lap,” he said. “Growing up I could have never envisioned this. I was actually afraid of the dead when I was a kid.
"When it came to funeral homes and seeing someone in a casket, it would remind me of being young and going to see a real scary horror movie and not being able to sleep at night. That’s where I was. But you grow and change with the times.”
The times are especially challenging these days. A Brooklyn funeral home became so overwhelmed by the coronavirus it stored dozens of bodies on ice in rented trucks until a passerby complained this week about the smell, officials said.
Paradise Memorial has dealt with six deceased COVID-19 victims, Dawson said. He met with employees Thursday to ensure they're prepared if the caseload becomes heavier.
His wife of 42 years, Vanessa, is the office manager, while his uncle runs the day to day operation. The staff totals 23, and they're wearing masks and going through a lot of hand sanitizer.
“It's stressful because of the times and the uncertainty,” Dawson said. “But this is what we signed up for. As challenging as it can be, we just pray and hope we’re prepared for it.”
Dawson, a Miami native, ended his 21-year major league career in 1996, and he was an eight-time All-Star despite knee injuries that have led to more than a dozen operations. He's best remembered for his 49-homer season with the Chicago Cubs in 1987, when he was voted the National League Most Valuable Player.
Dawson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010. He showed traits as a player that have made him a successful mortician, said his brother, Vincent Brown, who has been involved in the funeral business since 1985.
“He played through injuries when everybody else gave up on him,” Brown said. “He showed how dedicated and passionate he is about everything he does. He wants to serve, and he has compassion for those he's serving."
Dawson, who also has a job as a Cubs special assistant, was at spring training in Arizona in mid-March when the pandemic hit. Like everyone else, he wonders whether the 2020 season will happen.
“I’m usually back and forth to Chicago during the season," he said. “When it’s what you grew up knowing all your life, you’re missing the game. But if baseball does resume, it's going to be different."
These days everything's different — for ballplayers and undertakers alike.