San Jose funeral homes struggling to keep up with COVID-19 deaths
An outdoor ceremony. Photo courtesy Nicholas Welzenbach.

    Tom Beddingfield prides himself in being a yes man. In the funeral industry, it’s a must: With families grieving, the last thing some families want to hear is no.

    “In all the years I’ve been doing this, my biggest thing that I’ve always told my staff is that never tell a family no, whatever their request. No matter how out there it could be,” said Beddingfield, owner of Beddingfield Funeral Service in San Jose. “We will find a way to make it work, and we will give them the type of service that they want. And we’ve never had to tell a family no before.”

    Now it’s a nonstop “no” to grieving families as the COVID-19 pandemic turned the funeral industry upside down.

    “In the last year, it’s been no, no, no, no, and it’s absolutely horrible,” Beddingfield said.

    As of Jan. 21, 1,158 county residents have died of COVID-19, reaching highs this month of more than 100 deaths. The last two months have seen the biggest spikes in COVID-19 cases and deaths, due in large part to a post-holiday surge.

    “Everything just exploded the day after Christmas and it has not stopped since then,” Beddingfield said. “Last night was the first night since November where we did not have a call about someone’s passing.”

    Nicholas Welzenbach, managing partner of San Jose-based Darling & Fischer funeral home and Los Gatos Memorial Park, acquired a refrigerated truck last month to hold bodies from the surge in deaths medical experts warned of.

    “Did we ramp up for nothing? No. We’re all finding that it was a necessity,” Welzenbach said.

    A refrigerated truck on the grounds of one of Nicholas Welzenbach’s funeral properties. Photo courtesy Nicholas Welzenbach.

    Beddingfield and Welzenbach are not alone. Hundreds of funeral homes in Silicon Valley are scrambling to keep up with a spike in COVID-related deaths, with the death count possibly higher due to a lag in case reporting.

    “The last few weeks have been terrible. Capacity has been exceeded dramatically, even with funeral homes bringing in storage,” said Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association, the state’s largest funeral workers advocacy group. “And dealing with the second wave exceeded even those expectations of morbidity. It’s been a very difficult time.”

    Some of the funeral homes and mortuaries Achermann works with have turned away families because they’ve run out of temperature-controlled rooms to hold remains before services.

    “They have to turn families away, or tell them it might be weeks to make arrangements because they don’t have enough staff,” Achermann said. “It’s overwhelming.”

    A new look for funerals

    Santa Clara County’s health order prohibits indoor funerals, effectively moving all services outdoors. Up to 100 people are allowed to gather outdoors, but must maintain a distance of 6 feet and wear masks.

    In April, at the beginning of the COVID-pandemic, only 10 people could gather for funerals. Families were forced to livestream funeral services through online and video platforms.

    Welzenbach and his team created an outdoor space behind his building for services, adorned with flowers and tucked under a white tent to shelter from the cold. A camera at the front of the room streams the services for those who cannot attend.

    Los Angeles County — in many respects the epicenter of the pandemic in the state — has had a more difficult time when it comes to funeral and cremation services, be they COVID-related or not. Southern California air pollution officials temporarily lifted limits on the number of cremations in the county because so many people were dying during the pandemic.

    While the Bay Area’s counterpart environmental office hasn’t done anything similar, local mortuaries have been forced to take other extraordinary measures, such as bringing out-of-state embalmers to help prepare bodies for services.

    “Establishments may not have the capacity to store decedents for an extended time frame for a service, and embalming cannot be required by law,” said Michelle McVay-Cave, spokesperson for the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, part of the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs. “Families have to make difficult decisions deciding on the final disposition of their loved one.”

    A light at the end of the tunnel

    Achermann said the state’s mortuaries have not had this level of caseload ever.

    “People waiting (for services) two, three, four weeks right now is not uncommon,” said Achermann, “How long is it going to last?”

    In a typical year, Beddingfield said he gets around 300 to 350 calls for funeral cases. The home’s current pace is set to triple that. His policy of picking up deceased individuals within an hour of a call has increased to two to three hours.

    “It’s the best we can do,” he said.

    There is some hope, say local funeral directors.

    While they can’t personally interact with families like they used to, Achermann said there is “light at the end of the tunnel.” Welzenbach and his staff were part of the first wave of essential workers to receive the first of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccine. Families have become more receptive to socially-distanced or video funeral services, he added, and his staff has adapted to greeting families over the phone or through video calls.

    “Before COVID, we changed our spaces, changed our teams, so that when people walked in the door, they were sharing stories and memories. There was so much positivity about it,” Welzenbach said. “Now, we’re able to do it, but it’s more over the phone. Not in person. That has been far more taxing.”

    Beddingfield, meanwhile, is simply hoping the spike goes down — even just a bit.

    “I certainly hope the numbers are starting to level off and there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but at this point I honestly just don’t know,” Beddingfield said. “We’re going to assume that things are going to stay at the same level for now.”

    A bit of humor among his staff and families has helped, too.

    “I’ve been saying that 2021 is so bad that I’m longing for the good old days of 2020,” Beddingfield said. “Can you believe that?”

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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