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CA’s funeral homes scramble to handle COVID-19 victims

Pallbearers carry a coffin into a church for services. Photo: Krysja, via Shutterstock)

COVID 19 is not only overwhelming California’s hospitals, it’s overwhelming cemeteries and funeral homes as well.

Funeral directors across the state are being forced to tell grieving families that they have no more room and cannot serve them.

The California Department of Public Health reports there were 3,243,348 COVID cases in the state as of Jan 31. Total deaths are soaring to more than 44,000, with hundreds more added each day.

The National Guard has been called in to help transport corpses to the L.A. county medical examiner-coroner’s office.

Although the number of cases appears to have leveled off after a several-month post-holidays surge, the death toll is still high. There were 356 deaths on Feb. 6, down slightly from the seven-day average of 470.

“It is devastating, especially in Southern California and the Valley, where they’re just overwhelmed with cases,” says Robert Achermann, executive director of the 600-member California Funeral Directors Association.

“San Bernardino, East L.A., other parts of L.A., are just being overwhelmed,” Achermann told Capitol Weekly in a telephone interview. “After the first surge in the summer, a lot of funeral homes brought in additional refrigeration capacity, but it’s not enough for what’s happening now. And crematories are backed up.”

Los Angeles County alone has surpassed 18,000 deaths. Bodies were piling up at Los Angeles mortuaries and hospital morgues so fast and in such large numbers that the National Guard has been called in to help transport corpses to the county medical examiner-coroner’s office for temporary storage.

In some cases, hospitals are asking funeral homes to pick up the deceased directly from hospital beds instead of the usual procedure of going to the hospital’s mortuary, now at full capacity.

Some California air pollution districts have eased air pollution rules to allow crematories to handle more bodies in shorter times.

Giant Rose Hills cemetery in Whittier has had to bring on 25 refrigerated trucks to store bodies. Rose Hills reports its “staff and venues are fully booked for several weeks” — meaning bereaved families, some of whom could not see their loved one in the hospital for weeks, are being forced to wait up to five additional weeks for a funeral. Indoor funeral services are prohibited by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health and the cemetery has set up large white tents for services.

The 1,400-acre cemetery is offering its 750 employees assistance programs, special compensation and break rooms with healthy snacks.

Then there’s the paperwork problem.

California law stipulates that human remains cannot be buried or cremated without a death certificate and a permit. That paperwork requires doctors’ sign-offs and county approval. But mortuaries say the increasing number of bodies means it’s taking longer than the usual two to four days to get the approvals.

Some California air pollution districts have eased air pollution rules to allow crematories to handle more bodies in shorter times.

Although no one knows what the future will bring, and it could bring another surge, the apparent beginnings of a leveling off in COVID cases does give some hope.  For Californians, it’s something to cling to.


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