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'We Have No Space': LA County Funeral Director Describes Virus's Toll

A casket is loaded into a hearse at the Boyd Funeral Home as burials at cemeteries are delayed to the surge of COVID-19 deaths on Jan. 14, 2021 in Los Angeles.
Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images
A casket is loaded into a hearse at the Boyd Funeral Home as burials at cemeteries are delayed to the surge of COVID-19 deaths on Jan. 14, 2021 in Los Angeles.

Most of us don't have to think too often about the logistics of dying and about what closure, like wakes, funerals, memorials, actually requires.

But Todd Beckley has to. The Los Angeles County-area funeral director says he's never experienced anything like the coronavirus pandemic. He says that Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary where he works is so overwhelmed, they're using "every embalming table, every gurney, every table."

And there is a waiting list 23 families long.

"When you tell a family 'We have no space,' they have to begin making phone calls to see what mortuaries have spaces available. And I've been doing this since 1965, and I've never seen anything like this," he tells Morning Edition host Noel King.

Latest estimates show that nearly 1 in 3 people in Los Angeles County have been infected with the virus since March, and infections led to more than 14,000 deaths. The county is currently experiencing a post-holiday surge in COVID-19 cases.

Following are highlights of the interview:

Interview Highlights

Part of your job is helping people. You help them grieve, you help them get a sense of closure. You can't do that right now for many people.

No, you can't.

In the normal times, when a death occurs, the family would say — say the death occurred on a Monday — "Can we have a service on Thursday." And we'd say "Absolutely." Well now we have to tell the family that we're scheduling services in February. So we're not going to be able to serve them for three to four weeks.

Do families in their grief understand this?

You know, the majority of families say "We understand."

The people that yell at us the most in all due respect are the hospitals because they are overwhelmed, and they have someone who's died, and we're telling the hospital "I'm sorry, we can't send a car." And that's why you're finding in California especially hospitals are erecting refrigerator trucks in every parking lot that they can just to accommodate the number of decedents that they have.

I read that air quality regulators have lifted the limits on how many people can be cremated in large parts of Southern California. When you heard that, what went through your mind?

We're dealing with some issues, if I may share. The health department — they're operating regular business hours. Every death that occurs in California, the death certificate has to be filed with the county health department and a permit has to be issued by that department. And if the department's closed — and for instance, at Christmas and New Year's, they closed the day before the holiday, they were closed the holiday, they were closed the weekend. Four days, funeral directors in the state weren't able to file death certificates or get permits for cremation or burial. And that really affects the backlog.

Now you heard about the crematory issue and in lifting the regulations we were informed: there's a burial vault shortage. So families that have ground burial may find that when they go to the cemetery, the cemetery says, 'I am sorry, we don't have a burial vault for your loved one and we won't have one for 15 or 20 days.' There's a shortage of cardboard boxes for cremation. We haven't been affected yet but that's been in the news.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.