LOS ANGELES—On Saturday, a 53-foot refrigerated trailer was delivered to Continental Funeral Homes on East Beverly Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Alongside it sits a 20-foot trailer that Magda Maldonado began renting in the summer, but that no longer provides the room the 58-year-old funeral director needs for the volume of dead arriving from one day to the next.
“No funeral home around here has a container large enough to accommodate the number of people who are dying from COVID,” she told the Daily Beast.
Maldonado’s experience, and those of the people she works with, paint a picture of a death industry that is overloaded and overwhelmed. Of bodies piling up in area crematoriums, casket makers facing a shortage of supplies, and gravediggers struggling to keep up with equipment breakdowns.
While slammed funeral homes and deluges of dead have marked the coronavirus pandemic across the country, the people who power the industry here say they really are at the breaking point.
“Wood is getting scarce, especially pine, which is the most inexpensive,” said Auriel ‘Guero’ Suarez, owner of the Universal Caskets Manufacturing Corporation in East Los Angeles. “In 52 years in the business, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The normally bustling Mexican American community of East L.A. offers a window into a surging crisis that has put the nation's most populous county on the verge of catastrophe. Residents are calling around frantically for somehow or somewhere to bury their loved ones, and the people serving them are struggling to keep pace.
“It’s awful what these families have to live through,” Suarez said. "The caskets are practically flying out the door as soon as they’re built.”
“Sometimes,” he added, “the coffins don’t arrive on time for the funeral."
The worst part: Public health experts say things are going to get worse before they get better, despite aggressive lockdown measures aimed at stemming the tide.
“We were setting records two weeks ago, and now we’re just continuing up the curve,” UCLA infectious disease expert Timothy Brewer told The Daily Beast. “We have a New Year holiday coming up, and if it’s like the Christmas holidays, you can expect the curve to continue to rise or even get a bump ten or 14 days later.”
LA has seen exponential growth in new COVID infections and hospitalizations since the end of October, with nearly 100,000 new cases in the last week alone, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Hospitals are overwhelmed, intensive care units are at capacity, and oxygen is in short supply. This even as Gov. Gavin Newsom has imposed (and was expected to extend) a stay-at-home order that bans outdoor dining, hair and nail salons and other venues, and limits retail capacity to 20 percent.
Last week, the death toll hit record highs on consecutive days, and L.A. County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer summed up the chaos when she said, “A person now dies every 10 minutes in L.A. County from COVID-19.”
In prior surges, like the one that hit L.A. in the summer, local funeral homes added storage capacity to handle the rise in need. “Now that added capacity is being maxed out,” said Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association. “It’s almost a triage situation, where funeral homes are figuring out what space they have.”
Los Angeles County funeral homes are preparing as though the surge in COVID cases will continue until February, Achermann noted. And while funeral home workers are in the first-tier priority group for vaccines, nursing home and hospital workers are likely to receive the limited number of doses. “We’ve been told it’s likely that funeral home staff could have to wait to receive vaccinations until January or February,” Achermann said. (The state Public Health Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Local funeral homes have, of course, also suffered setbacks when staff members test positive for COVID. Maldonado has had two employees lose a parent to the disease, she said, adding that an employee’s daughter tested positive for COVID-19 over the holiday weekend. She has to stay home from work.
Meanwhile, the volume of requests at Continental Funeral Homes was simply too much to bear.
“We're in a crisis and the situation is getting desperate,” Maldonado said. "Funeral homes do not have space to receive more bodies. Everyone is working seven days a week plus overtime. We’re exhausted.”