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The complicated business of dying during COVID-19

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Greg McKinnis, a funeral director at Rivera Family Funerals, never thought he’d have to wear a respirator to work. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, when McKinnis arrives to transport a recently deceased person to the mortuary, he puts on a full body suit: shoe covers, two layers of gloves and a suit that covers his entire head, mirroring the body suits worn by hospital staff in COVID-19 wards.

“The temperature goes from 70 degrees to 100 degrees, because you had that suit on,” McKinnis said. “It’s a little overwhelming.”

For McKinnis and other funeral directors, the pandemic has turned much of their industry on its head and has led to more bodies, slower turnaround on vital records and fewer people at each funeral.

And those in funeral homes have seen firsthand the state’s rapid rise in COVID-related deaths over the past couple of months. It took New Mexico seven months to reach 1,000 COVID-19 deaths – that figure has now tripled in half the time.

Directors say they’re seeing more and more bodies come through their doors each week, many of whom died of COVID-19.

“We didn’t see our first case until October – now, almost every other case we get is COVID,” said Jacob Shaw, a funeral director at Berardinelli Funeral Home in Santa Fe, adding they’re performing several services a week.

McKinnis said seven to 10 decedents he picks up a week died from COVID-19 in the Santa Fe area alone, and that’s not including Rivera’s other locations in northern New Mexico.

And preparing bodies for a funeral has become an increasingly risky business. Since it’s possible for the dead to transmit COVID-19, embalmers and those handling the deceased have to take the same precautions as if they were alive and contagious.

That means wearing layers of expensive protective equipment both when bodies are retrieved and when they are prepared at the mortuary. In some cases, funeral workers won’t know someone had COVID until they begin the embalming process, McKinnis said.

The pandemic has also slowed the process for receiving death certificates, which are vital for the deceased’s family to manage their loved one’s finances.

McKinnis said the unprecedented number of deaths has slowed the process. Death certificates normally take a few days to process, but in some cases, it is taking months for families to receive them.

“They’re just getting bombarded down at the Medical Investigator’s Office,” he said.

When asked why certificates are taking so long to process, a spokesperson from the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) said that is the responsibility of the Office of Vital Records, overseen by the state Department of Health.

But DOH spokesperson James Walton wrote that OMI would know why certificates are taking longer than expected.

Much of northern New Mexico hasn’t had to resort to the large refrigerated trucks to store bodies that have been seen in places such as Los Angeles, where officials suspended local air-quality regulations so bodies could be cremated more regularly.

But those working in funeral homes say their locations have often come close to capacity and that some locals have already started to worry about where their loved ones are being kept.

Rivera’s Operations Director Bob Clifford said one woman became incredibly worried that her loved one was going to be kept in a refrigerated truck.

“Those are the kinds of things people are worrying about,” Clifford said. “They think it’s happening everywhere.”

‘Kind of a nightmare’

But those running funeral homes and the families impacted by the numerous deaths agree, restrictions limiting the number of people who can attend a funeral have been the most difficult to manage.

Currently, state restrictions classify funerals as “mass gatherings,” meaning no more than five people can attend.

The restrictions become evident when entering a funeral home.

At Berardinelli’s, five empty cushioned chairs form a semicircle around where the coffin is viewed. On Jan. 20, funeral directors wheeled a coffin – carrying the body of a woman who died of COVID-19 – out of the empty room to be transported to a small service at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

“It’s a difficult position for us directors,” Shaw said.

And for large families, like that of Tina Villas of Santa Fe, that’s created an excruciating situation when deciding who can attend.

Villas’ brother, Edward Sanchez, passed away at 47 years old on Christmas Day from liver cancer, leaving behind an 11-year-old daughter and a family now faced with the difficult task of planning a service in the midst of a global pandemic.

“It’s been kind of a nightmare since the beginning,” Villas said. “We still haven’t even cremated him.”

Typically, more than 100 people in her family would attend a funeral, but now Villas said she’s having to keep some details of the service secret to ensure not too many people show up.

Her family has also had difficulties getting a death certificate, which has made managing her brother’s affairs nearly impossible.

Overall, the restrictions have made it difficult for Villas to begin the grieving process, she said. At times, it almost feels unreal that her brother has actually died.

“We didn’t get to have a proper rosary for him,” she said. “It’s a lot harder for a lot of the families.”

This has led some in the funeral industry to appeal to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to increase the number of people who can attend services.

Michael McIntire, vice president of the New Mexico Funeral Service Association, said allowing only five people per service hurts funeral homes financially and makes it more difficult to comfort grieving families.

Funeral directors told the Journal most families are choosing to forgo any ceremony until after the pandemic in order to give their loved one a proper send-off.

“There’s got to be a way to make this easier on people,” McIntire said, adding his organization has written letters about it to Lujan Grisham.

A spokesperson for the governor wrote that, while funeral homes have been overwhelmed by virus-related deaths, large gatherings at services continue to present a significant public health risk. Those restrictions still come with a cost, though, various directors said.

“(A service) shows that this person meant a lot to a lot of people,” Shaw said.

Vaccines wanted

And given the additional risks for funeral workers, many say they should be higher on the priority list for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Mortuary and cremation workers are currently scheduled for Phase 1B of vaccine distribution, which includes those over the age of 75 and some essential workers not working in health care settings.

“Everybody on our staff needs to have that vaccine,” Clifford said. “We’ve applied, like everybody has, but we’re not getting any action on it.”

McIntire said some rural funeral homes have been able to get vaccinated when extras from local hospitals become available. However, it’s more difficult for those living in urban areas, since demand there is often greater.

But some believe they should have received vaccines at the same time as those working in hospitals, since decedents could have had the virus before passing away. Workers also have to enter homes where someone could be infected.

“They forget about us,” McKinnis said. “We’re the last ones that have to deal with (COVID). It’s frustrating.”

Funeral workers, however, also stressed the emotional toll the pandemic is having on their industry. For McKinnis, the sharp increase in bodies he prepares, along with the risk for infection at and outside of work, is definitely having an impact: “You take this one home,” he said.

But he added the best way for people to assist funeral homes is for people to not get sick, mainly by washing their hands and wearing a mask.

“If they don’t take it seriously, they’re going to end up seeing me,” he said.

Albuquerque Journal seeks stories of our community's pandemic loss

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