When New York City was overwhelmed with coronavirus deaths last year, Casey Stone from Bay Area Mortuary was heartbroken by the news stories about “stacking bodies in trailers.”
So when the surge of deaths started hitting the Bay Area in recent weeks and three refrigerated trailers were brought into their mortuary parking lot in San Jose, she started a new ritual.
Every morning, she climbs into the temporary morgues with a bucket full of flowers, gently tucks in the white sheets around as many as 60 perished people on bunk bed-style racks and lays a fresh flower on top.
“We try to offer a little dignity and respect when they go from one sad place to another,” said Stone, the operations manager for the family-owned mortuary.
After the holiday surges, the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are declining, but the deaths — the pandemic’s lagging indicator — are enduring “an extraordinary explosion,” as one funeral home operator puts it.
California has tallied more than 43,000 deaths so far, with nearly 15,000 of those coming in January, and is on pace to surpass New York, which leads the nation with more than 44,000 deaths, within a week. And the “last responders” are struggling to keep up.
Crematories are operating on double shifts — and some would run three, one operator said, if they had enough trained workers. Embalmers are working 7 days a week. Across the Bay Area, some families have to wait a week or even two to set up an initial meeting with a funeral home.
Last week’s storms added more misery. With funeral services required to be outdoors, families endured buffeting winds and rain in two-sided pop-up tents as they tried to say goodbye.
“Every day we’re picking families off the floor, bawling, saying they couldn’t be with their loved ones when they died and we say, ‘Sorry, you can’t have your service inside,’” Stone said. “We do this every day, but still, I don’t have enough waterproof mascara. I cry right with them.”
If the Bay Area funeral industry has it tough, Los Angeles is worse. With 40 percent of all statewide coronavirus deaths, grieving families there often wait a month or more for a funeral service.
Los Angeles County lifted air quality regulations in January when it suspended limits on the number of cremations allowed each month. Southern California has such a backlog that a Fresno funeral home, for instance, is trucking bodies to the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland for cremation.
“We can’t keep up with the cremations down there,” said Buck Kamphausen, who runs a string of 15 funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries across California. “We’ve doubled all the capacity — plus — at our facilities. We’ve had to add backup generators and racks to carry them. All we’re doing is meeting the demand.”
In recent weeks, transport trucks have been making two trips a day between the Neptune Society facility that Kamphausen runs in San Jose to the Evergreen crematorium in Oakland.
“One day they called me and said we just got 50 bodies to pick up today,” he said of the Neptune facility. “We have a holding facility for 70 bodies and we fill that up instantly.”
The morgue at Skyview Memorial Lawn in Vallejo is nearly full, he said, so “we just opened another refrigerated unit so we can hold more bodies.”
Rules requiring bodies from nursing homes be quickly transferred — including a surfeit of COVID cases among them — and death certificates that wait days for the signatures of exhausted doctors, all add to the backups. With little room to hold bodies that aren’t quickly destined for cremation or burial, many mortuaries won’t accept bodies from hospitals without signed death certificates, which adds to more strain on hospital employees scrambling to find options.
Harry Greer, who followed his father into the East Bay mortuary business, said he’s considered the “secondary backup” for Alameda Hospital when its morgue overflows. With winter flus and pneumonia, the funeral business is usually busy this time of year. But now, he said, about half the deaths coming to his mortuary are from COVID.
“We’re a smaller funeral home, but still, this is my 50th year in the funeral business and I’ve never experienced anything quite like this,” said Greer, who now owns Alameda Funeral and Cremation Services.
Large funeral homes and cemeteries are also feeling the strain
At Chapel of the Chimes in Piedmont, which has a larger sister facility in Hayward, General Manager Cary Boisvert said that although the Bay Area hasn’t been hit as hard as Los Angeles, “we certainly have been keeping our heads just above the waterline.”
“We’re there for at least 12 hours a day, or longer,” he said. “People come in on their days off. People are doing their level best to help.”
The Hayward Chapel of the Chimes has brought in an extra two refrigerated trucks that Boisvert said he also uses.
Grieving families are often forced to wait at least six days to get an initial Zoom meeting, he said, which creates “a very unnatural suspension state. It’s hard to move forward.”
Although he hasn’t refused services to anyone yet, “I could see it happening if we were as unfortunate as Southern California.”
In San Jose, Bay Area Mortuary’s three parking lot trailers hold bodies for the Santa Clara County coroner and a number of local hospitals. Most mornings, Stone stops at the florist on her way to work to pick up red, pink and yellow roses and daisies. She suits up in a protective suit and mask before she enters the refrigerated trailers and treats each body as though it were a relative.
Recently, as she was climbing into one with an armful of flowers, a driver dropping off a deceased person asked why she takes the time each day to walk through the chilly coolers lined with double-decker built-in-racks.
“Because this is somebody’s mother,” she said she told the driver.
Last week, the driver’s grandfather-in-law died and he told her the body would be heading to Bay Area Mortuary.
“Can you make sure you put a flower on him?” she said the driver asked her, adding, “Now I get it.” More terrible news about this Californication on Mercury News.
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