As COVID-19 deaths climb locally, funeral homes, crematories and others in the business of caring for the dead are feeling the strain.
Deaths are mounting following a major uptick in virus cases locally that started after Thanksgiving. The official death toll from COVID-19 in Kern County — 565 as of Monday — typically lags behind actual deaths due to processing of death certificates and is expected to climb steeply in the coming weeks. A California Department of Public Health forecasting tool predicts Kern will see 200 more deaths in the next 30 days, bringing the total to 765 by Feb. 17.
To keep up with demand, local funeral homes have bought more refrigeration capacity to store the deceased, and have asked staff to work overtime to hold more funerals and burials than they ever have previously.
"Every funeral home is doing what they can to assist families. These are unprecedented times," said John Basham, owner of Basham Funeral Care, who has been in the business for 35 years.
Basham's four locations are holding eight to 10 funerals a day right now and for the first time holding two funerals a day. He also recently started holding services on Sundays, which he didn't do before.
Jim La Mar, president of Greenlawn Funeral Homes and Cemeteries who is also a member of the California Funeral Directors Association, said the company's volume in the past month was about double what it typically sees. As a result, Greenlawn has increased storage significantly and is paying employees extra due to all the overtime they're working.
Greenlawn is a holding facility for a large local hospital, La Mar said, and has also seen a significant increase in requests to retrieve the bodies of the dead.
"From what the hospitals have told us, one of their biggest concerns is they have a shortage of emergency room beds so when someone does pass it’s critical to pick them up so they can turn that room around," La Mar said.
In addition to its own services, smaller funeral homes have called asking if Greenlawn can help them find portable refrigeration to deal with their own uptick in demand. La Mar said requests for cremations are also now coming from funeral homes in Los Angeles that can't access their local crematories because they're so busy.
In a sign of how bad it has become in Los Angeles, the air quality control board for Southern California on Monday relaxed restrictions on crematories due to the high number of deaths there. Greenlawn is using a crematory it owns in Tehachapi to accommodate some of the need from Los Angeles, La Mar said.
Greenlawn has sufficient refrigeration capacity to hold deceased bodies thanks to a mix of prior planning and recent purchases, La Mar said, but Greenlawn's funeral directors are now working six days a week to meet demand. He's also recently hired drivers who spend their entire day transporting the dead to their facilities to be prepared for burial or cremation.
"We had a hospital call us and say, 'You’re not the funeral home of choice but the funeral home of choice declined to get them because they have no room,'" La Mar said.
The situation is non-stop and exhausting, La Mar said, and he worries about the well-being of the company's 90 employees. But there is a deep sense of duty from those in this line of work to help families lay their loved ones to rest and grieve their loss.
"You can’t just say, 'hey we’re going to shut down for a week and let everybody take a deep breath,'" La Mar said. "What’s the alternative? We stop serving the community? We can’t do that."
Andrew Mendoza, funeral director for Parkview Mortuary in Delano, said his biggest challenge has been trying to schedule the various parts of a funeral — the viewing, church service and a graveside ceremony — in a timely manner.
Only one of the two Catholic churches in Delano can offer an outdoor service, he said, and the cemetery district there has struggled to keep up with all the burial requests as well as regular maintenance of the grounds. Mendoza said funerals had to be scheduled three weeks out.
After a board meeting last week, however, the cemetery district told funeral directors it will now do burials every hour as opposed to every two hours to keep up with increased demand, Mendoza said.
"It’s hard to tell families my soonest availability is three weeks out," Mendoza said. "If we have to, we'll work a little harder to keep it between one to two weeks."
The Kern County Coroner's office has also been impacted by COVID-19, according to Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
The office has long needed an upgrade in terms of space and technology. Youngblood said the increase in deaths has been "problematic." Storage for bodies is an issue, he said, and temporary workers have been brought in to help with paperwork. While the coroner's office only investigates certain deaths — those that are suspicious or the result of a traffic accident or violent crime, for example — it handles administrative paperwork for all funerals and cremations.
"We are not staying up (with demand) but it is what it is," Youngblood said. "They’re working as quickly as they can."