Valley funeral homes at capacity following spike in COVID-19 deaths

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Many funeral homes across the Central Valley are at capacity following the latest spike in COVID-19 deaths.

Some funeral homes have even purchased mobile refrigeration units to take on the extra caseload that's expected.

And cremations are happening 24 hours a day at one of the largest local funeral homes - in order to keep up.

Outside Chapel of the Light Funeral home, a new mobile refrigeration unit is ready to handle any influx of deaths due to COVID19.

"We see repeat families once every five years and this time of year we're starting to see repeat families two or three times in the same year and unfortunately COVID has run rampant in their communities, in their families," said Mika Rabara of Chapel of the Light.

Winter is typically the busiest time of year for funeral homes but this season it's especially hectic and overwhelming. The pandemic has made this entire year record-breaking for those who care for the dead.

"Since the pandemic started in March, we've probably seen a large increase in business. This is going to be our busiest year ever. Normally the summertime is a slower period in the Valley when it comes to our death rate - at least at our business - and this year there was no slowdown," says Ronald Smith with the Sterling and Smith Funeral Home.

At Chapel of the Light, crematories on site usually operate 10 hours a day but due to the high number of cases, they've been running nonstop 24 hours a day.

"There's a lot of overtime going in right now. And it's hard to find that extra help within this industry especially with all the funeral homes being under the same amount of pressure and stress at this time," says Rabara.

Not only that, but funeral directors say hospitals are anxious to have bodies picked up as soon as they can due to limited morgue space. So funeral homes will be also be inundated if COVID deaths rise.

Scaled back memorial services are still happening with 10 or fewer family members. As the pandemic has gone on, many families have realized that holding off for a church to reopen to have a traditional funeral may not happen anytime soon.

These difficult circumstances can make mourning families even more upset. Funeral directors are faced with balancing a family's wishes along with following safety procedures.

At Sterling and Smith Funeral Homes, for those who died with COVID, a clear Plexiglas shield still allows a viewing - just no touching.

"We've still tried to give people a touch of the culture, and the personal preference of the family preference that people have- but at the same time putting safety as a high priority for everyone," says Smith.

This goodbye is the only closure families of COVID victims will get since a majority of those who died in a hospital did so without their loved ones by their side.
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