South L.A. funeral homes overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — The sharp increase in COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed the funeral home industry to the point of changing how traditional rituals of honoring and mourning the dead are performed.

 Stressed beyond their normal capacities, it’s been reported that a number of funeral homes have had to turn away bereaved families, stop answering the phone, increase operating hours, hire more help, buy refrigeration trucks to accommodate an overflow of bodies, and increase the number of daily services, all while trying to keep funeral home workers and the grieving families safe from the coronavirus through social distancing and frequent sanitizing.

Just like firefighters, grocery store workers, paramedics, doctors, and nurses, funeral home workers believe they, too, are frontline employees, although they have come to be known as last responders.

 The owners of Boyd Funeral Home, Harrison-Ross Mortuary, and Angelus Funeral Home, all well known in the Black community, recently spoke about the impact COVID-19 has had on their individual facilities. All said they’ve “never seen anything like this.”

“COVID-19 has changed everything,” said Candy Boyd, owner of Boyd Funeral Home. “It’s crazy. Right now, we’re so backed up. I’ve had to hire more workers because we can’t keep up. My walk-in refrigeration [unit] can house 20. I made more space and ran out of that. I finally had to get a refrigerated truck.”

Under California law, dead bodies must be either refrigerated or embalmed within 24 hours of death. COVID-19 protocol has changed that with many funeral homes having to use refrigeration for those bodies for at least 72 hours to make sure the threat of the virus is minimal.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Bob Acherman, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association. “I hope we never do again. No one was prepared for this, especially the numbers we saw in December and January. Everyone is scrambling. No one wants to turn away a family, but there are legal requirements for storage. Plus you have to have enough staff.”

Acherman said funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoriums were not prepared for the volume of calls for help or the number of bodies. Crematoriums are working at full capacity.

“Local officials in L.A. have had to waive the limits of cremations,” he said. “A cremation that took two days now takes weeks because each piece of equipment has a limit.”

Since the pandemic hit, business has increased tremendously at Angelus Funeral Home on Crenshaw Boulevard.

“Sometimes I’m up answering the phones until 7:30 a.m.,” said Todd Davenport, 46, president of Angelus Funeral Home. “It has really gotten very busy. We’re now doing funerals outside. We have less contact with people. The building used to bustle, now it’s quiet because we can’t have a lot of people inside. No funerals are done inside.”

Angelus Funeral Home was started by Davenport’s great grandfather, John Hill, Sr., in 1925 and is, reportedly, the largest, single mortuary in the state and the oldest family-operated mortuary in the community.

It became the first black-owned business on Crenshaw Boulevard in the 1960s and has handled the high-profile services of Dorothy Dandridge, Florence Griffith Joyner, Nipsey Hussle, former Mayor Tom Bradley, Johnnie Cochran, Ray Charles, and more.

“We’ve been going nonstop since March,” said Davenport, whose two sisters run the business. “It has been super busy the last couple of weeks. We’ve seen a real increase in deaths since Christmas. Unfortunately, we’re not able to console families like we used to. One of the hardest parts of my job right now is figuring out how to serve families and finding space.”

Davenport said even though Angelus has a refrigeration unit that holds 64, for the first time in its history, they have “run out of space” and had to turn away families.

“The first weekend of the new year we had to turn away 50 families,” he said. “Thanksgiving through March is the busy season. We have been looking into getting mobile refrigeration. That presents a new set of challenges.”

Davenport said the challenges include companies that price gouge on refrigeration units and on the tents they use as an outside chapel. But that’s not all.

“When you tell a family you can’t pick up their loved one, that’s hard, especially when they passed away at home,” he said. “At the hospital, we can work something out. At home, that family is on their own. If they have to stay at home awhile, the only thing you can do is keep the house cool. I wish I had a better answer. I don’t know what to tell them. If they call a mortuary and it doesn’t have room, that can be tough.”

“They have to be patient and call multiple funeral homes,” Acherman said. “There’s nothing we can do to say who is available and who is not. Some funeral homes do a triage every night. That removal process — there are only so many people who can do it. You can’t staff up like Amazon.”

Normally Angelus sees 75-80 families per month, but since the pandemic, Davenport said it has jumped to 120.

“The daily deaths in L.A. County alone is somewhere near 250,” Acherman said. “They are seeing caseloads double in the last month. I try to remain optimistic. I stand in amazement that people say this doesn’t exist. I don’t know what you have to see, feel, hear or experience.”

To those who still insist COVID-19 is a hoax, Boyd said, “They are sick. They are crazy.”

“It’s not a hoax,” said Davenport, who does have an issue with how officials are presenting COVID numbers

“Our former president poisoned people into believing it’s not as serious as it is and that wearing a mask has no value,” said Chip Smith of Harrison-Ross Mortuary. “He planted that seed. Why isn’t that commonsensical to me?”

Boyd and Smith noted that due to the pandemic, they are forced to be on guard to keep from getting infected.

“We’re pushing for funeral home workers to be vaccinated,” Acherman said. “They need access to [personal protective equipment]. Things have gotten to the point that we need to have out of state, licensed embalmers come to help us with the overload. We’re working with the state licensing board with that so they can help on a temporary basis.”

For Candy Boyd, the family business has now become “a dangerous business.”

“Every day I wake up, I’m going on the battlefield,” she said. “People come in and you don’t know what they have. They could be sick because they were around their family member who just passed from COVID. And then there are the stories. You hear the stories of the families and it’s just heartbreaking.”

“The funeral profession is dealing with a lot of death,” said Acherman. “With this kind of magnitude, the safety of staff is taking an emotional toll. I hear that over and over again. It’s truly a terrible time.”

Smith, whose family established Harrison-Ross Mortuary in 1948, said the company, which has three locations, tries to keep people to a minimum because, he too, finds that not everyone is truthful about their condition.

“Some people with COVID are coming to the funeral because they want to say a proper goodbye to a family member,” he said. “They end up infecting others. That’s a problem.”

To keep the spread of the virus to a minimum, Boyd, whose family has owned Boyd Funeral Home since 1963, said they, too, are holding services outside.

“It’s set up the same way,” said Boyd who admits to feeling overwhelmed. “We have a covered tent, podium, and the flowers. We practice social distancing. That can be hard when you’re grieving.”

Smith, who is closely following industry guidelines, said wait times for funerals at Harrison-Ross Mortuary have increased.

The National Funeral Directors Association found that half of its members have clients who have postponed services to hold a memorial later.

“What’s driving that is the availability of a cemetery to bury people,” said Smith, who holds all services outside. “They are overwhelmed as well. I have a family that can’t have their services until three weeks from now.”

Boyd said her business is so overwhelmed that funerals and burials are rarely if ever, held the same day. Some burials happen “four or more weeks later.”

Boyd, like many funeral homes, has had to turn away a number of grieving families due to lack of room.

I’ve had to turn away quite a few,” said Boyd, who estimates at least 50% of her business is from COVID deaths. “I’ve had to tell people to come back next week. My drivers are swamped. Too many pick-ups. Too many house calls. A normal house call is two hours, now it’s eight-12 hours. Pre-pandemic it was maybe one a day, not anymore.”

Smith said he “gets calls all day” and that 60% of all of his current business is due to COVID.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “We continue to try to help people at a trying time. This is a whole different level of it. People are calling funeral home after funeral home, going down the phone book. They don’t know anything about the funeral home. What they know is that they need to have their loved one, who passed away in the house, picked up. It’s difficult trying to accommodate everybody.”

Boyd, Smith, and Davenport’s personal lives have also shifted.

“Some of my friends are afraid to be around me,” said Boyd. “My life has changed. Right now it is what it is. I go home and take a shower to get the day off of me. Every day I hope and pray for the best.”

“I just try to unwind and relax,” said Davenport.

Smith said when he goes home, he takes off the clothes he was wearing at work and sanitizes all of his belongings.

“I sanitize everything including my keys, my phone, and anything else that was at work with me,” he said.

Asked how he is holding up emotionally with the surge in his business, Smith said, “I don’t think that it’s weighing on me more than usual. I love helping people. This is just another ripple in the death care experience I’m living.”

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.