Author:- Sam Levin
Topic:- The region’s funeral industry is collapsing amid the pandemic. It’s taking an unfathomable toll on grieving families
‘I can’t grieve’: LA families wait months to bury loved ones as Covid deaths rise
Johanna Matamoros’s father and mother died one month apart in December and January. But with Los Angeles funeral homes pushed to the brink due to the Covid-19 catastrophe, she may have to wait two to three months to bury them.
“I’m not able to grieve. It is so painful,” she told the Guardian.
Matamoros’s 56-year-old father, Asmel, died of Covid in December in El Salvador, where he had traveled to say goodbye to his dying mother. Her mother, Jeannethe, was heartbroken over the loss of her husband of 32 years, and died of heart failure one month later. “She would just sit there and cry. They just couldn’t be apart from each other.”
Yet it may be months before the couple can be buried together. Even though Asmel had previously reserved a spot at a North Hollywood cemetery for him and his wife, Matamoros might not get a service date until April. She is still waiting for the funeral home to give her an initial meeting and for her father’s ashes to arrive from El Salvador.
The collapsing funeral industry is a particularly grim consequence of the coronavirus disaster in LA, one of the worst Covid hotspots in America. With an average of one death every six minutes and more than 200 deaths a day, every part of the system is overwhelmed with bodies, including funeral homes, mortuaries, cemeteries, crematories, the coroner’s office, the public health department and hospital morgues.
Jeannethe and Asmel Matamoros.
Many grieving families spend hours calling funeral homes, only to be told that the mortuaries are full for the foreseeable future. Those able to find a mortuary with capacity or get on a waiting list are told to wait more than a month for a service. And with phones ringing off the hook, some families say they can’t even figure out where their loved ones’ bodies are.
The crisis became so dire this week, with a backlog of more than 2,700 bodies stored at hospitals and the coroner’s office, that local air quality regulators announced the county would be lifting the limits on the number of cremations allowed in the region.
For many funeral directors, declining families is unprecedented. “We’ve been in business for 75 years and we’ve never had to turn away families,” said Nichol Montague, the funeral director at the South Los Angeles Mortuary, which is located in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the region.
“Families are calling me daily, saying can you just put me on a waiting list when you have space? And there is nothing we can do, it is so horrible.”
In a sign of how dire the situation has become, Montague said she recently got a call from a woman whose grandmother had passed away at home and was having trouble finding anyone to pick up the body. “These families just want closure. It hurts.”
Hugo Sanchez Laurel, the president of Optima Funeral Home in South LA, said he was temporarily closing his doors to new families until he can get through his current cases. During the end of the holiday season, he was turning down roughly 25 families a day, he said. Now, he’s advising distraught families to try calling mortuaries outside LA altogether. He doesn’t know what else to do.
“We’ve always heard of mass casualty events, but nothing like this,” said Laurel, who buried a mother and son this week. The latest surge was akin to a mass casualty event every day, he said, and the industry wasn’t equipped to respond. As a primarily Latino funeral home, he also has to send bodies out of the country, which has become even more difficult during the pandemic.
Asmel Matamoros hugging one of his grandchildren.
The national guard recently deployed to LA to help with the temporary storage of corpses, but some funeral directors have urged the county to provide more assistance, noting that the public health department is keeping normal business hours, which can delay permits and create a further bottleneck. Some are struggling to get overwhelmed doctors to sign death certificates, which also exacerbates the backlog.
When mortuaries shut down, the bodies pile up at hospitals. Martin Luther King Jr community hospital in South LA recently had to purchase a refrigerated truck after the on-site morgue reached capacity, said Jonathan Westall, the vice-president of ancillary services. When the truck, which had space for roughly 20 people, filled up, he added shelves to double the capacity. And when the shelves weren’t enough, he had to acquire a second truck.
It could all soon get worse, with Joe Biden warning on his second day in office that 100,000 more Americans could die in the next month, and that the Trump administration had no vaccine distribution plan.
The agonizing wait: ‘Pain on top of pain’
Elvira Marquez, a 50-year-old Angeleno whose father Manuel died on 6 January, said the process to bury her father was a nightmare. Manuel requested to be buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary alongside his wife, but Marquez found it impossible to reach anyone at the cemetery.
She said she waited more than six hours on hold, and that when she finally got through, a representative said the mortuary would call back when it had capacity to pick up Manuel’s body, and that it probably wouldn’t be able to transport him until there were multiple bodies that needed transport from the hospital where he died.
She spent the next two weeks without updates, she said, and only learned 10 days after the fact that Rose Hills had indeed picked up her father. But the cemetery listed the wrong death date on its website obituary, making her worry that Rose Hills could have mixed up corpses, especially since she hadn’t laid eyes on her father, a 77-year-old welder.
Manuel Lopez Marquez (left).
Manuel Lopez Marquez, left. Photograph: Courtesy of Elvira Marquez
She was eventually told she would have an appointment on 2 March to make arrangements, but has no idea how long it will take to schedule the burial after that.
“Do they even have the right person? We don’t know,” said Marquez, who last saw her father when she said her goodbyes on Zoom and is now raising money on GoFundMe to cover the burial costs. “To have to go through this with the mortuary to find out if it is my father is indescribable. It is surreal … The cemetery is literally inundated with so many families having to endure this pain all over again.”
A Rose Hills spokesperson acknowledged services were delayed, but declined to comment on Marquez’s account, saying “all decedents are served with the care and compassion they deserve during this unprecedented time”.
Juliana Jimenez Sesma, 41, had to figure out how to bury both of her parents after they died 11 days apart in December in South LA. With funeral homes overrun and the holidays further postponing paperwork, it was three weeks before she could have a service for her mother, which she held outdoors in a church parking lot.
“It’s just pain on top of pain having to wait. You don’t get to have a little more peace until you know their body is put to rest,” she said.
Juliana Jimenez Sesma’s parents died 11 days apart in December in South LA.
Sesma had an opportunity to see her mother’s body at the hospital after she died, but had to wear a mask, gloves and gowns. “I can’t even describe the feeling of seeing your mother’s body, but feeling restricted from hugging or kissing her. It is just terrible.” She was grateful to be in the same room with her mother, even if they couldn’t embrace: “She’s always going to live with me in my heart, so I wasn’t really telling her goodbye.”
Most families don’t get that chance. Candy Boyd, the owner of Boyd Funeral Home, said it was especially painful for families who hadn’t physically seen their loved ones for weeks or months before their death, since hospitals don’t allow visitation. To delay that further is agonizing, said Boyd, who recently did a funeral for a mother of nine. “They are trying to pick up the pieces and move on to the next chapter. It is just heartbreaking.”
Johanna, who is waiting to bury her parents Asmel and Jeannethe, recently tested positive for Covid, which means she couldn’t even be with her mother in her final days. Her parents were beloved in the community – devout Christians, her father known as a karaoke master, her mother an expert in floral arrangements – and numerous pastors have reached out offering to do services, Johanna said. But because the funeral homes are backed up, the family is stuck in limbo. She, too, is trying to raise funds to afford the burial costs.
“I just want a place for me to go and mourn my parents and bring them flowers. That’s all I want,” she said. “How long will we have to wait?”