Coronavirus: Overwhelmed US funeral homes turn families away

Funeral homes say they lack storage, have growing backlog for burial, cremation services as coronavirus deaths surge.

US funerals
Men carry a body into a funeral home during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City [Jeenah Moon/Reuters]

Funeral director Kendall Lindsay has been forced to turn 20 families away.

As the number of COVID-19 deaths skyrockets in New York City, the third-generation funeral director at Lawrence H Woodward Funeral Home in Brooklyn said the demand for funeral services has increased overwhelmingly. 

On March 29, the funeral home had 127 scheduled funeral services; a week later, on April 5, that number had gone up to 175, Lindsay told Al Jazeera in an email. The funeral home is not taking on any new cases because it is running out of storage capacity.

“We have cases we cannot bury or cremate until April 15 … Caskets [are] in the lobby of my lower level. I have no space for them,” she said.

Across New York City, funeral homes, morgues and mortuary workers are scrambling to respond to a surge in cases linked to COVID-19. As of Tuesday more than 68,550 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the city and more than 2,700 people had died. 

The state of New York recorded its biggest one-day jump on Tuesday with 731 new coronavirus deaths reported, bringing the statewide death toll to 5,489. 

US funerals
Men carry a body into a funeral home during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City. [Jeenah Moon/Reuters]  

The New York Times reported last week that New York City’s chief medical examiner’s office had purchased 45 mobile morgues to handle an additional 3,500 bodies, while dozens of refrigerated units were also ordered to meet the demand for more space.

One funeral home in Queens cancelled all visitations and is no longer embalming bodies: “We’re simply burying them directly, picking them up at the hospital and going directly to the cemetery or doing direct cremation,” Neufeld Funeral Home’s director, Omar Rodriguez, told local television news station PIX11.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said his government was looking into its contingency plans should the city need a temporary burial space.

Lindsay said her funeral home typically works with five embalmers: one has stopped taking COVID-19 cases due to their own health issues, one had too many cases and stopped taking new ones, and two of the remaining three have “begged to give them time” amid the increase.

US funerals
Men load a coffin into a car outside a funeral home during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. [Jeenah Moon/Reuters] 

The funeral home also has asked people over age 70 not to come in and restricted viewings to a maximum of 10 immediate family members. “We have changed our whole operation,” Lindsay said.

“We can no longer work with the constant calls. We have closed and locked the door. It is too much.”

Social distancing 

In Washington State, the early epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, Governor Jay Inslee on March 23 issued a “Stay Home – Stay Healthy” proclamation that banned private and public gatherings, including funeral services.

Less than a week later, Inslee’s office reversed the decision, saying that licensed funeral homes and cemeteries could have funerals so long as only the immediate family members of the deceased are in attendance and social distancing measures can be respected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines urge people to avoid public places and mass gatherings, and to maintain two metres (six feet) from others, in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Russ Weeks, owner of Columbia Funeral Home in southeast Seattle, said there is a lot of anxiety among both funeral staff and the general public around what is allowed and what isn’t, “so we’re trying to stay up on the most recent information”.

US funerals
Pat Marmo, owner of Daniel J Schaefer Funeral Home, walks through a viewing room set up to respect social distancing. [John Minchillo/AP Photo] 

Now that the ban on funerals has been lifted, he said small funeral services are being organised for immediate family members, while larger community memorials will be pushed back to later dates.

“For the most part we know how to protect ourselves from the deceased … The danger lies in family members or living people,” said Weeks, who added that social distancing will protect mortuary workers from coronavirus transmission at limited funeral services, however.

“As long as we practise strict social distancing and cleaning and sanitation, we should be at no greater risk,” he said. “Even though we can’t do it in the same way, I think it’s extremely important that we do what we can.”

Washington state also recently reclassified mortuary workers as emergency responders during the coronavirus pandemic, which allows them to order personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, from the State Emergency Operations Center.

Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, said mortuary workers had been reusing single-use equipment because “the supply chain dried up and they were not able to get any more protective equipment that would help protect them from COVID or anything else”.

“Hopefully people are going to start getting those supplies … and be able to protect themselves and protect the families that they serve,” he told Al Jazeera.

Funeral homes are making other changes to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, such as making funeral arrangements over the phone or online, and webcasting services for people unable to be there in person, he added.

‘Strain on everyone’

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, Goff said being able to offer families a way to grieve for their loved ones is important – even if it is more limited than before.

“That time of gathering … is absolutely imperative,” he said. “To come forward and to have an opportunity to say goodbye to somebody, to celebrate that they lived a life, that that life touched somebody’s else’s life.”

US funeral homes
A white rose is pinned to an empty chair during a funeral of a man who died of the coronavirus in Lexington, South Carolina. [Sarah Blake Morgan/AP Photo] 

Lindsay, the funeral director in Brooklyn, agreed that “any time you prevent someone from saying goodbye, you are affecting them mentally and emotionally” – so the firm is operating under the principle that it will keep providing “goodbyes that are safe”.

She said, however, that funeral directors and workers are also feeling emotionally and physically drained by the crisis. “Almost everyone here is a parent, a wife, husband. We are doing all we can, but we really are at our mental and physical limits,” she said.

“This is a strain on everyone.”

Source: Al Jazeera