Written by Breanna Hardy
With Covid-19 cases and deaths rising in the Central Valley, funeral home personnel are particularly overwhelmed, with the whole death care industry backlogged.
Wayne Gomes, managing partner at Jay Chapel in Madera, said they have seen increased volume at the funeral home.
“Things have dramatically increased. When it first happened in March, you didn’t have as many deaths going on, but now it seems like it skyrocketed,” Gomes said.
The Fresno County morgue can fit 150 bodies comfortably, and 200 if absolutely necessary.
“Going into yesterday, our count was 125 bodies,” said Tony Botti, public information officer for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
He said they have a 53-foot refrigerated trailer that was donated to the county from a transportation company out of Illinois. It’s currently on standby should they need it.
Botti said that after Christmas, the body count was up to 139 from the mid-90s, and funeral homes picked up 14 bodies as of Monday.
“Funeral homes are doing as good as they can. I know that they are very busy but we’ve got a good relationship with them,” Botti said.
Gomes described the impact on the health care industry as a snowball effect. Delays compound and make it difficult for hospitals and funeral homes to contain their volume.
“It’s backing everyone up because the volume of death certificates have to be completed before you can have the permit from the State of California, either for cremation or burial. The doctors are swamped. They’re not getting the causes of death back to the funeral homes so they can do the documentation,” Gomes said.
Cemeteries are also limiting how many services can take place, which impacts all funeral homes in the Valley. Botti mentioned that cremations are up substantially, which gives families the opportunity to have a proper ceremony whenever restrictions on gatherings are lifted.
Farewell Funeral Services in Fresno provides overflow refrigeration for hospitals, and Anthony Cisneros, managing partner, says they’ve been strained.
“We’ve actually been at that point for the last two months. We do provide overflow for them throughout the year, but it’s really been strained the last two months,” Cisneros said. “It’s been significant.”
Both Gomes and Cisneros have been in the industry for decades now, and both admit the strain on the industry is unlike anything they’ve seen.
“I got in the funeral business back in 1978, so I’ve been doing this for a while, but I’ve never seen an impact like this now,” Gomes said.
In Cisneros’ 25 years in the industry, he says, “I’ve never seen the death care industry stretched to the limits like it is right now, and I’ve never seen the hospitals stretched to the limit like they are right now. It is very sobering.”
The decreased staff hours at cemeteries and health offices has caused delays in paperwork and ceremonies.
Jeff Chancellor, who is a trainer for employee development at Salser and Dillard Funeral Chapel in Visalia, said it’s taking longer to perform services that would normally take just hours.
“Those delays make us feel a little bit helpless,” Chancellor said.
Some of his staff have been working 12 to 14 hour shifts for 30 days in a row now, and they’re fatigued.
But the impact isn’t just in the industry — it’s in families too.
“Someone’s dropped off at the hospital emergency, and no telling how long that person’s going to be. They can’t visit with that person. And next thing you know, they get a call and they passed away, so it’s overwhelming for families. It really is,” Gomes said.
Cisneros says he’s seeing a lot of delay and backup in the hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries. Some funeral homes don’t pick up Covid-deceased patients, leaving them at the hospital, which is exasperating the hospital. The coroner’s office has storage to relieve the overflow in hospitals too.
“Just as the frontline responders — the first responders — are stretched to the limit, we are as well on our end because someone has to be there to pick up these deceased patients when they pass,” said Cisneros.
He said that operation costs have increased significantly, as well as costs for protective equipment, overtime and regular salary. There has to be enough PPE to go around for embalmers and enough body bags to accommodate deceased patients.
“It has made a hard situation even harder,” Cisneros said.
Chancellor said there’s a strain on everybody’s infrastructure. Cemeteries are down to a limited amount of staff members, and they’re also holding a limited amount of graveside services in a day.
They’re still having funerals, but they’re exceedingly smaller. He said people still need caskets or urns, but the financial cuts are on additional services like limousines, catering and live music.
He emphasized the importance of the grieving process that is missed right now when people can’t say bye to their loved ones as soon as they’re dropped off at the hospital. And with restrictions on gatherings for cemeteries and funeral homes, people aren’t getting the same closure.
“If we don’t grieve well, we don’t recover well,” Chancellor said.
“We’re kind of like the forgotten ones. You know, everybody forgets that these bodies don’t move themselves; they don’t care for themselves, they can’t embalm themselves, they can’t cremate themselves; they can’t move themselves. Somebody has to do it,” Cisneros said.