funeral homes are very quiet lately
Photo by Lydia Chávez

The grim business of funerals has become grimmer in the era of COVID-19. 

“We’re like the bearer of bad news on top of bad news,” said Amanda Gomez, the funeral director at Driscoll’s Valencia Street Serra Mortuary. 

At a time when the notion of death is omnipresent — in our newspapers, on the street, in a fleeting thought before we touch a box of cereal at the grocery store — mortuaries are having to reinvent how people mourn the deaths of their loved ones. 

Funeral home staff say this is not an easy transition for most mourners. Since a Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order was renewed last week, funeral homes must limit ceremonies to 10 people. All have, indeed, curbed the flow of people, while some have outright barred visitors, offering digital body identifications and asking families to postpone services until next year. 

“Obviously, 10 is quite difficult for families,” said Dan Duggan, an owner of Duggan’s Serra Mortuary in Daly City. “Usually the immediate family is more than 10.” 

That became a problem for Driscoll’s on Valencia Street, Gomez said. Recently, the funeral home had hosted a service for the matriarch of a large family who died at more than 100 years of age. Although the funeral home enforced the 10-person rule inside the funeral home, “they were in the parking lot in large numbers.” 

Neighbors notified the police. Soon after, the cops phoned Driscoll’s to remind the funeral home that gatherings of three dozen people, as it had been in the parking lot, were prohibited during the public health order. “People are very much watching and worried,” Gomez said. 

The abundance of caution, especially during funeral services, is warranted. A February funeral in Albany, Georgia — where tears were wiped away, noses blown, and embraces abounded — set off a veritable coronavirus bomb in the town of 73,000, infecting some two dozen mourners and eventually more than 900 people. It’s what epidemiologists call a “super-spreading event.” 

To avoid being the loci of such events, funeral homes are now having to dramatically enforce social distancing: having people wait in their cars to come in, having people come in shifts to pay their respects, and doing services digitally. Six-hour visitation times have now been whittled down to as little as 30 minutes. In the case of the San Francisco Columbarium, there are no visits at all. 

“We’ve actually locked our gates and are not doing any services currently,” said Brian Kestenblatt, the Columbarium’s general manager, adding that the decision had been made three weeks ago. 

“We’re really trying to stick to our guns and create a safe environment,” Kestenblatt said. 

Body Double 

As COVID-19 has claimed thousands of lives in New York and New Jersey in a matter of weeks, East Coast mortuaries have become inundated with the dead. But so far, on the West Coast, all has been quiet. 

“We’re a little steady,” Gomez said, noting that the death toll in San Francisco has not been high — 10 so far, compared to upwards of 6,000 in New York as of Wednesday.  

Driscoll’s, Gomez said, has not seen a single COVID-19 victim. 

But that has not stopped Bay Area funeral homes from getting prepared. Duggan of Duggan’s Serra said his current capacity for human remains stands at 20 to 22. “Two weeks ago, we ordered another brand-new cooler to double capacity going forward,” he said. “I expect delivery by the end of next week.”   

Kestenblatt said the Columbarium’s cooler capacity is at 20, and he’ll have the ability to double it should San Francisco experience a surge of deaths. “We did buy more coolers,” he said, referring to the Columbarium’s location in Colma, where there’s “quite a bit more” storage. “We’ve always had a plan in place,” he said. 

Duggan’s Welch Funeral Service on 17th Street, which has no business relationship with Duggan’s in Daly City, has also geared up. Right now, it can hold 20 bodies, said Thomas V. Halloran, the general manager. “We are bringing in a separate unit to hold more decedents,” he said, declining to specify how many more. 

The funeral home, he added, has handled four COVID-19 victims. Two of the families visited the funeral home for viewings, while the other two bodies were sent straight to cremation with no viewings, he said. 

Handling these bodies, he said, is much like handling other bodies that have perished from infectious diseases: The embalmer and anyone who handles the body uses more protective gear, and every surface is carefully wiped down. “These are procedures for all bodies,” Halloran said, “but the protective gear is more involved for any infectious body.”

For now, there’s been no upswing in deaths, but should a surge befall San Francisco, Halloran said, “we would want to encourage families to be expeditious” in their arrangements.  

International Purgatory

Aside from hosting funerals, Gomez of Driscoll’s said that 25 to 30 percent of the funeral home’s business is making arrangements to send human remains to other countries to be buried. Right now, she said, that’s impossible. 

“We always need to get permission from the consulate,” Gomez said, but right now “the consulate is closed.” 

Driscoll’s is currently holding the body. “Nobody can be shipped,” Gomez said, explaining that the family was not interested in other options. “We’re just gonna wait it out.” 

Duggan’s in Daly City is currently holding three bodies — all waiting to be sent to the Philippines, Duggan said. “There’s not really international flights going on right now,” Duggan said, agreeing with Gomez that closed consulates are also a hurdle. 

Halloran of Duggan’s Welch said his mortuary has one body that needs to be sent to Nicaragua. 

It will have to wait. 

The performance of proper end-of-life rituals, he said, will also have to wait. And with it, the normal process of mourning. 

“Funerals are rituals,” he said, and with the cutbacks in what Duggan’s can offer, their ability to orchestrate those rituals has been diminished. The flower mart is closed, so there are no flower arrangements. Churches aren’t holding big services, so there is no need for limousines between the church and the mortuary.

“Whether Catholic, Christian or Muslim, taking away the ritual is difficult,” Halloran said. “It’s a life-cycle event, and when you take the ritual away, that has an impact.” 

At least one family wants to wait for the full ritual, he said. So they are keeping the body in a controlled temperature room at Duggans. That is, until it no longer needs to shelter in place. 

Lydia Chávez contributed reporting. 

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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