Christopher Lujan, location manager at Sunset Funeral Homes West, enters the empty chapel on Wednesday evening. The coronavirus pandemic has forced funeral homes around the city to adapt to new demands. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

As the COVID-19 death toll rises to previously unimaginable levels in El Paso, funeral directors are overwhelmed with bereaved families and are concerned that many El Pasoans aren’t taking the crisis seriously.

“I just urge everyone: don’t think this is political. Go to the hospitals, come to the funeral home, you’ll see that this is not political. There’s people dying from this,” said Chris Lujan, funeral director at Sunset Funeral Homes’ West Side location.

COVID-19 has had profound impacts on the funeral business, ranging from religious constraints on memorial services, to limitations on the number of people who can attend the burial, even to the way morticians handle the deceased.

“You feel for the families,” Lujan said. “Especially because during this time, they don’t really have much closure. They can’t go visit them at a nursing home or the hospitals, so the last time they are able to see them is usually at the funeral home.”

COVID-19 has transformed funeral planning

Funeral homes have reduced the number of people allowed at memorial services, which is the primary way families and friends are able to say goodbye to recently deceased loved ones.

Jorge Ortiz, general manager of Perches Funeral Homes, said they have had to change the ways families can attend services.

“We are now offering livestream (options for memorials),” Ortiz said. “We have a lot of families that don’t want to expose their elderly family members.”

Jorge Ortiz, general manager of Perches Funeral Homes, closes a casket that will be transported to Juárez for burial. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The El Paso Catholic Diocese is not conducting funeral Masses right now due to the surge in COVID-19 cases in the community, nor are they allowing Catholic clergy to go to the funeral homes to conduct services. 

A maximum of 10 people are allowed to be at the graveside for burials at El Paso cemeteries.

So far, 729 El Pasoans are officially said to have died from COVID-19, but the actual number probably is more than 1,000 because of delays in confirming deaths from the novel coronavirus. In the past week, El Paso likely has averaged between 15 and 30 COVID deaths per day and that is expected to rise in coming weeks.

Rising deaths have resulted in funeral and burial delays

Funeral directors report a wide range of delays in the process of planning and carrying out memorial services for recently deceased El Pasoans.

Ortiz said the time it takes a family to even get an initial appointment to plan services has been impacted by the pandemic.

A sign at Sunset Funeral Homes reminds guests to refrain from close physical contact such as hugs and handshakes. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“Before COVID … I remember giving the family the appointment within hours — either that same day or the following for sure,” Ortiz said. “Now that has changed. We are now so full and overwhelmed. Our schedules are so tied up that we now have to schedule families sometimes two, three days later.”

Lujan said the rise in deaths also has resulted in delays in funeral and burial services, as the system struggles to keep up. “Our case volume has increased dramatically due to COVID, so we’re doing probably two to three funerals a day right now,” he said. 

Lujan said families have been experiencing lag times for securing grave plots as well, because some cemeteries are “totally booked.”

Funeral home employees experience emotional strain

While funeral homes are helping families mourn the loss of loved ones, they are also under emotional strain.

“We are funeral directors, but we are also human beings and we have all sorts of emotions and thoughts. Every day we wake up and we have to come into work, and not only is it stressful, but you really need to have mind control,” Ortiz said. “(You) control your emotions and have to be very very positive.”

Ortiz said Perches lost one of their own when Harrison Johnson, the Northeast funeral director and pastor who officiated a widely-viewed live stream funeral service for one of the victims of the Walmart shooting, died due to complications of COVID-19 on October 15.

“So not only was it hard for our team while we are dealing with stress and fear from some of our personnel, but then the loss of one of our team members,” Ortiz said. “It’s been very challenging for the whole team, but we show that we are here for our team.”

Christopher Lujan, location manager at Sunset Funeral Homes West, stands near one of the newly-installed refrigerated storage units at his location. Sunset added several new permanent storage units to its facilities at the beginning of the pandemic because, Lujan said. “It did not seem dignified to put (the deceased) in trailers in the parking lot.” (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso matters)

Ortiz said since the pandemic started, they have been very attentive to staff and have been providing them all of the personal protective equipment they need.

Some funeral homes have begun treating every deceased person as though they potentially have COVID-19, which involves added precautions in handling. According to Lujan, there is often a delay in labeling a death as being caused by COVID-19, which has been the rationale for taking added measures to protect workers at funeral homes.

Families and funeral homes alike experience financial burden of COVID-19 surge

As the city has struggled to keep up with mortuary capacity needs, bringing in 10 mobile morgues, funeral homes also have expanded their storage capacity.

Perches moved into a larger facility two months prior to the pandemic and built new refrigeration storage. They also converted a chapel into a cooler, which allowed the funeral home to hold 280 individuals at its facilities.

Sunset has added three walk-in refrigeration units to its facilities in response to rising numbers of deaths.

Many funeral homes also have added staff in order to keep up with community needs. Increased staffing and increased refrigerated storage needs have added to operational costs at the facilities. 

A casket waits in the chapel at Perches Funeral Home’s West Side location on Thursday morning. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Some families have struggled with the financial burden of paying for funeral services for one or more unexpected deaths in the family. 

Operation H.O.P.E, or Helping Other People Endure, has been providing financial assistance to families during the pandemic. The nonprofit also helped families with funeral expenses following the Aug. 3, 2019, terror attack, where 23 people were killed by a white supremacist.

Angel Gomez of Operation H.O.P.E. said the nonprofit has helped at least 400 families who have loved ones who died of COVID-19. Gomez said the growing number of families needing help is becoming overwhelming and he has felt like giving up at times.

“I feel defeated, I feel like I can’t do anything anymore,” Gomez said.

Grief support options are available for El Pasoans

Support for those who have experienced a loss is readily available, Lujan said. “I just hope people know that they do have some options. We do have grief counselors always available,” he said.

Multiple grief counseling services are available throughout El Paso, including online services provided directly through the funeral homes and local churches

The Children’s Grief Center of El Paso has seen a large rise in families in need of help. They provide support for grieving children who have recently experienced a loss because of COVID-19.

“We recognize the mental setbacks that grieving children can have,” said Laura Olague, CEO of Children’s Grief Center of El Paso.

“The depression, the anxiety, the behavioral disorders – all clinical stuff that they can experience that can only get worse if they don’t have some intervention,” she said.

Also, Emergence Health Network is now operating the COVID-19 Mental Health Support Hotline for residents in the El Paso and the Midland/Odessa area. Counselors are trained in trauma-informed support, and can be reached at 915-779-1800.

For funeral directors, as they assist more and more grieving El Paso families, they try to stay hopeful that things will improve soon.

“(Stay) home if you don’t have to go anywhere. That way, maybe this will go away quicker, and also we’ll see less deaths in our community,” Lujan said.

Cover photo: Christopher Lujan, location manager at Sunset Funeral Homes West, enters the empty chapel on Wednesday evening. The coronavirus pandemic has forced funeral homes around the city to adapt to new demands. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter.