Valley mortuaries have silently suffered a series of logistical challenges as spiking COVID-19 deaths cause capacity issues, staff strain and limits on the kinds of services they are allowed to provide, based on government regulations.Costs have increased significantly for the industry, bearing a striking resemblance to its highly publicized counterpart throughout the pandemic: health care.Funeral homes are spending additional money on personal protective equipment, temporary refrigeration units to store bodies and paid sick leave for staff that have themselves been infected by the virus.“Those are things that are going to increase your expenses and not necessarily improve your bottom line,” said Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association, of PPE and other pandemic costs. “Yes, you have a greater volume of families you’re serving, but you probably won’t be able to do a lot of the things you’re typically able to do. You may not have a memorial in your chapel, a graveside service. From a revenue perspective, it’s not the same kind of services you’re providing in the past. Chances are it’s truncated, and your costs are higher.”“There’s some uptick in terms of bottom line, but not proportionate to what one might think,” added Bill Hawkins, owner of Angeleno Mortuaries in Van Nuys. “We’re beginning to ration what we can do, that we can continue to serve and get a little bit caught up. We just don’t have the physical space, the staff, the equipment.”Hawkins reflected that he cannot perform the work he’s accustomed to in a safe and professional manner during this pandemic. “It’s unthinkable in my mind, but we’ve really had no choice,” he told the Business Journal.Angeleno Mortuaries has seen more than double its normal numbers. It anticipated 1,800 funeral cremations and burials last year, but ended up performing about 2,500.
“To put it in perspective, we are approaching 400 death calls in January – two and a half times what we might expect,” said Hawkins. His company would normally complete about 170 services each month.Government entities have given minimal assistance, Hawkins said, but much more support is needed for the industry.“The focus has been almost primarily on first responders. There has been a little relief in that we can, with a bunch of bureaucratic loops, hire licensed enbalmers from other states, if we’re able to get them,” explained Hawkins. “The government at the local and state level has been problematic not only for us but for our other colleagues in funeral service.”From the customer’s perspective, Angeleno’s 10 locations, including its flagship location at 5948 Van Nuys Blvd., have kept some families waiting for weeks. At times, the attending physician needs to sign off on cause of death; other times, the delay comes from waiting on a mortuary attendant to embalm or cremate remains in a safe and respectful manner.“The whole process slows down,” explained Achermann. “Paperwork has to be authorized, the means of disposition chosen, whether it’s cremation or burial, and do you want to have services. When you have people dying where there was no expectation of death in the short term, it’s very likely that nobody thought of those things.”L.A.’s diverse population also causes delays, Hawkins noted. “We serve a lot of people that were originally born in other countries, and there was a reduction of flights, complications with consulates. Some countries aren’t even accepting decedents at this point,” he said.Morgue spaceAngeleno Mortuaries has added walk-in refrigeration units to some of its locations to hold the corpses. The company has purchased a commercial diesel refrigeration truck, and installed storage racks to increase capacity to 80 to 100 decedents.Hawkins hired seven full-time associates to help with transportation and logistical support, bringing his staff count to 56. The new hires free up funeral arrangement counselors and management to focus more on direct customer service “to balance caring for the dead while serving the living,” he said.Even one of his best staff members, who had been retired for more than 20 years, came back to help the mortuary handle extra demand.“Ironically, with the unemployment problem with the nation and the region, recruiting has been extraordinarily difficult,” said Hawkins. “Part of that may be the industry we’re in, but we really have had more difficulty hiring the right ‘who’ to assist us, but we have had some success with the additional staff.”Embalmers from other states may also be able to work across state lines, to help with a process that requires a special education and requirements.“You just can’t create your workforce overnight for a short period of time,” added Achermann. “It becomes very challenging to operate in this kind of environment. The training for that is difficult; it’s hard to intake people when you are running as fast as you can.”Even with all of these additions and changes made, mortuaries cannot easily scale to meet pandemic demand since it’s such a specialized industry.“The sheer volume, that is unsustainable long term, we can’t keep this pace with what we have; we pray for the vaccine to be effective and for our fellow citizens to take the threat of this much more seriously,” added Hawkins. “I guess it’s kind of odd, from a business perspective, to hope to have less business, but we don’t ever want people to die, it’s just that it happens and we want to serve the best we can.”Altered servicesFor Hawkins, family needs have not changed. Many still want to have traditional burials with large ceremonies attended by friends and families.
But for now, outdoor, socially distanced ceremonies with 10 or fewer family members is the most practical approximation of what customers want.“They’re not able to have the selections to be able to make the arrangements that their traditions or culture historically has had. They’ve had to downscale so very much in terms of attendance for funerals or memorials. … There’s something very therapeutic in normal times of people being able to hug and touch each other as they breathe together,” said Hawkins.Virtual services have been available for some time too, in order to accommodate friends and family not able to attend, Achermann said.
Other families have opted for “simplicity cremations,” with no viewing and no ceremony of any type.
More than half of decedents in California have been cremated upon death in non-COVID years, Achermann said.
“Western states have a higher percentage of cremation than other states do,” he added. “For California, it’s always a function of the mobility of our population and the fact that families are less spread out. Less space, more expensive to have a burial plot because of the cost of land in California.”At Angeleno Mortuaries, cremation is more the exception than the rule, but the process increased to 3 to 4 percent of business during the pandemic compared to 1 to 1.5 percent in 2019.“Cremation has, very slowly and incrementally, been rising for the near 60 years since I first got involved with funeral home service while I was in high school. It’s been going up for a very long time, but in slow numbers,” Hawkins explained.Achermann expects cremation rates to continue rising with COVID deaths, especially since the state passed a moratorium on air quality requirements related to crematoriums.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued an emergency order to temporarily suspend permit requirements for crematoriums, at the request of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office and L.A. County Department of Public Health.