'A nightmare every day': Inside an overwhelmed funeral home in Los Angeles amid the Covid-19 crisis

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) – The chapel at Continental Funeral Home was once a place where the living remembered the dead. Now the pews, chairs and furniture have been pushed aside to make room, and the dead far outnumber the living.

On a February Thursday afternoon in Continental’s chapel in East Los Angeles, across the street from a 7-Eleven, there were four bodies in cardboard boxes. And two bodies in open coffins, awaiting make-up. And seven wrapped in white and pink sheets on wheeled stretchers. And 18 in closed coffins where the pews used to be. And 31 on the shelves of racks against the walls. The maths numbed the heart as much as the mind – 62 bodies.

Elsewhere at Continental – in the hallways beyond the chapel, in the trailers outside – there were even more.

“I live a nightmare every day,” said Ms Magda Maldonado, 58, owner of the funeral home. “It’s a crisis, a deep crisis. When somebody calls me, I beg them for patience. ‘Please be patient,’ I say, ‘that’s all I’m asking you.’ Because nothing is normal these days.”

Funeral homes are places America often prefers to ignore. As the coronavirus pandemic surged in Los Angeles in recent months, the industry went into disaster mode, quietly and anonymously dealing with mass death on a scale for which it was unprepared and ill-equipped.

Like those in Queens and Brooklyn, New York, in the spring or South Texas in the summer, funeral homes in parts of Los Angeles have become hellish symbols of Covid-19’s toll. Continental has been one of the most overwhelmed funeral homes in the country. Its location at the centre of Southern California’s coronavirus spike, its popularity with working-class Mexican and Mexican American families who have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, its decision to expand its storage capacity – all have combined to turn the day-to-day into a careful dance of controlled chaos.

For more than six weeks, a reporter and a photographer were allowed by Ms Maldonado, her employees and the relatives of those who died to document the inner workings of the mortuary and the heartache of funeral after funeral after funeral. Beverly Hills has had 32 deaths. Santa Monica has had 150. East Los Angeles – an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County that is one of the largest Mexican American communities in the United States – has had 388.

With more than 52,000 virus-related deaths, California has recorded the most of any state but about average per capita. At Continental, the brutal reality of the death toll hits the gut first, the eyes second.

The workers’ burden

The trailer was cool and unusually empty. Eleven bodies were lined up on the right and seven on the left, all in cardboard boxes. The names were written in black marker on the flaps of the lids. The tallest stacks were four high, each box separated by a strip of plywood.

Mr Victor Hernandez helped push a new one in, the 19th body. He is one of the newest employees of Continental Funeral Home. Mr Hernandez, 23, had been a chef at a sushi restaurant but lost his job during the state’s shutdown. Out of work for months, he went to the 7-Eleven across the street from the funeral home one day and saw the sign that Mr Maldonado had posted at the corner: “Now Hiring!”

He started a few weeks ago, making US$15 (S$20) an hour, plus overtime. The co-worker who helped him push the stretcher down the middle of the trailer, Mr Daniel Murillo, 23, was also hired recently. He used to work at McDonald’s.

“I’m not going to lie: The first day I had nightmares,” Mr Hernandez said. “It makes me appreciate life a lot more now. I see my parents, my sisters – I see them differently than I did before. I’ve got to cherish them.”

Firefighters, nurses, doctors, paramedics, police officers – the first responders who make up the nation’s coronavirus front lines have been celebrated throughout the pandemic. But in hard-hit cities, funeral home workers have been invisible last responders. They have always done the work no one wants to do, but they do it now to an extreme. The virus has exhausted them, pushed some to quit and infected them too. They view themselves as working-class emergency workers in a specialised, misunderstood field.

“I feel like, for me, this job was a calling,” said Ms Brianna Hernandez, 26, a manager and apprentice embalmer. “Most of my friends and family are like, ‘You’re crazy.’ No one wants to talk about death. It’s going to happen to any of us, at any time, at any moment.”

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Ms Maldonado, Continental’s owner, said that about 25 per cent of the employees at her funeral homes in California have tested positive for the virus but that none of them had been infected from handling bodies.

Still, she has largely stayed away from relatives and fellow worshippers at her church. “I’m not able to go to anybody’s house because I feel that I have the virus with me and I’m going to take it,” Ms Maldonado said. “So for me, I just go home, take a shower and stay home.”

The numbers overwhelm

The calendar Ms Maldonado keeps at her desk ran out of space in the pandemic. She had to tape extra columns to the bottom of the pages to add time slots, one of scores of small improvisations. One day recently, she had 12 funerals at her four Los Angeles area locations. The next day she had 13.

Ms Maldonado and her managers estimate the total number of bodies at Continental’s East Los Angeles site on most days at about 260. Over the past 10 weeks, the office phones were flooded with hundreds of calls, so she turned the weekend answering service into a seven-day-a-week operation. She had the tables and the counters removed from the cafeteria where grieving relatives used to gather; after cooling units were installed, the space, like the chapel, was converted into a makeshift morgue.

The large whiteboard on an office wall was built for 22 names of those who had perished. Now it has more than 150, and there are other bulletin boards filled up on other walls.

Ms Magda Maldonado in front of the whiteboard filled with the names of people awaiting services. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Two of the names were Ernestino and Luisa Hoyos. They had been married nearly 40 years. He was 63 and a gardener. She was 60 and worked at an adult-care facility for older people. One of their co-workers infected Mrs Hoyos and her daughter, family members said, and they brought the virus home to Fontana. Mrs Hoyos and her husband were taken to the same hospital and eventually put in the same room. She died first, on Jan 13; he died on Jan 16.

Just as they had shared a hospital room, the Hoyoses shared a funeral. At Continental, double funerals – for husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters – have become commonplace. “There are really no words to describe what we’re going through,” said the couple’s daughter, Ms Anayeli Hoyos, 38. “I know Covid is going to go away, but we’re marked. We’re marked for the rest of our lives.”

Ms Anayeli Hoyos (centre) consoled by her husband at the funeral for her parents in a Rialto cemetery. Their bodies had been kept at Continental. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Those who remain

Death has been quick in East Los Angeles, but mourning waits. The delays – for the body to be picked up from a hospital, for an open date for a funeral – last for weeks. Ms Vicenta Bahena, 54, contracted the virus at a laundromat. Everyone in her household was infected, including her long-time partner, Mr Serafin Salgado, 47, a dump truck driver.

All recovered, except Ms Bahena, who was born in Iguala, Mexico, and raised three sons. She died on Jan 26 at a hospital in the city of Inglewood. Mr Salgado had initially thought Ms Bahena’s body would be taken to the funeral home the day after she died at the hospital.

But he called Continental and was told it would take weeks. “They told me that they have so many bodies that they couldn’t help me yet,” Mr Salgado said.

Ms Bahena finally arrived at Continental more than two weeks after she died.

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