Orange County Mortuaries Overwhelmed but Persevering Amid Pandemic

By Chris Karr
Chris Karr
Chris Karr
Chris Karr is a California-based reporter for the The Epoch Times. He has been writing for 20 years. His articles, features, reviews, interviews, and essays have been published in a variety of online periodicals.
January 11, 2021Updated: January 12, 2021

ORANGE, Calif.—Funeral homes across Orange County, California, are beginning to buckle under the mounting pressures of accommodating the increasing number of the recently deceased.

“This pandemic has created this influx of death numbers I’ve never seen before—ever,” Kimberly Worl, president of the Orange County Funeral Directors Association, told The Epoch Times.

“We’re overloaded. You don’t have enough funeral homes. You don’t have enough staff trained, [and] you don’t have enough licensed people to take care of everyone that’s dying at one time.”

Worl said that each step in the typical mortuary process is slowing down. Under normal circumstances, burials would generally take place within 3 to 7 days, she said. But now, the process can take at least 10 days or more.

The time frame between death and burial is even more prolonged because every COVID-19-related case must be reported to the Orange County coroner for review.

“It’s just the volume,” Worl said. “Sometimes, families can’t get appointments for a few days because all of our funeral directors … are trying to get caught up from the other families that they’ve been assigned to help.”

Worl was careful to note that not everyone who’s passing away is dying from COVID-19. Rather, decedents whose death certificates list COVID-19 as either the main cause of death or an “other significant condition” are generating a higher quantity in addition to the “normal increase at this time of year,” she said.

“It’s just the combination of the two things,” she added.

The number of overall deaths in Orange County was slightly higher in 2020 than recent years, according to health data collected by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

Since 2015, Orange County has averaged 19,675 total deaths per year. As of November 2020, 21,110 deaths had been recorded by the CDPH for 2020.

As of Jan. 11, the Orange County Health Care Agency has reported 2,091 COVID-related deaths to date, including 50 recent deaths.

Epoch Times Photo
The sun sets behind a graveyard in Lake Forest, Calif., on Jan. 8, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
A sign hangs on a gate in front of a graveyard in Lake Forest, Calif., on Jan. 8, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Working Day and Night

Becky Areias—the president, owner, and funeral director of Hilgenfeld Mortuary in Anaheim—told The Epoch Times this is the first time in 40 years her company has had to resort to a waiting list.

“I’ve been through the AIDS epidemic and SARS, and it’s never, ever come close to this,” she said. “It’s definitely been life changing.”

Areias said her current caseload is five times the typical amount per month, and estimated eight out of every 10 cases are reported as COVID-19-related deaths.

“We’re extremely, extremely busy,” she said. “My staff is working night and day. Nobody’s taking days off. I’ve called in extra staff to help.”

Areias said her mortuary is currently booked until early February. Her chapel is being used three times per day, with a limited capacity of 20 people, for 70 minutes at a time. Social distancing and masks are required, and comprehensive disinfecting protocols are maintained between each service.

Many Shortages

Areias spoke of the many shortages that are adding to the pressure of tending to the surviving family members.

There’s an ongoing struggle to get enough personal protective equipment (PPE), embalming fluid, and body bags. They’ve also had to increase their capacity by ordering a new walk-in cooler, building new platforms, and hiring a welding company to construct a storage unit.

Even though Areias said she was unaware whether it’s possible to catch the virus from a cadaver, a number of her embalmers are reluctant to work with COVID-19 cases. As a result, there aren’t enough embalmers on hand.

“We still take all of our necessary precautions like we would with any type of infectious disease,” she said.

Although the shortages have created certain difficulties, one of Areias’s biggest concerns is providing high-quality service for grieving families.

“We’ve gone to every extreme measure that we can think of to be respectful to these loved ones and take care of them,” she said.

A major change involves switching from in-person consultations to phone, FaceTime, and Zoom meetings—an adjustment Areias said isn’t as sensitive or personable as face-to-face interactions.

“But all in all, every family we serve has been very, very appreciative and very supportive of what we’re doing. People are grateful to have that small opportunity for farewells—even if it’s only like a 25 percent capacity service,” she said.

Said Worl: “The bottom line is these are human lives, and these families are grieving. And they’re already under stress. Our job is to make that grief a little bit less stressful.”

Epoch Times Photo
Reverend Samuel Hilgenfeld and his family sit in front of their mortuary in Anaheim, Calif., in 1918. (Courtesy of Becky Areias)

Moving Ahead

Areias, a fourth-generation descendant of Hilgenfeld Mortuary’s founder, Rev. Samuel Hilgenfeld, is in uncharted territory. But she said the current pandemic reminds her that her great-grandfather faced a similar challenge more than 100 years ago.

“He went through the [Spanish Flu] pandemic with my grandfather and his siblings,” she said. “I have a picture of that from 1918 in front of the mortuary.”

Areias, who lost her own mother five years ago, said at times it can be overwhelming. At a certain point, the grief that she sees so many families going through gets to her, she said.

“I pray a lot. I stay busy,” she said. “I have to keep everything going, just because of my family business—you know, four generations. I would let a lot of people down if I wouldn’t carry on. I guess that motivates me.”

Now, Areias has reasons to feel hopeful.

“My staff and I just received the first dose of the vaccine, and that reminded me that my great-grandfather and family made it through the Spanish Flu without a vaccine,” she said.

Worl attributes the ability to adjust during a pandemic to a type of resiliency and passion that’s unique to folks in the mortuary trade.

“I’m so proud of every single person that works in this industry,” she said. “We don’t get that type of recognition because you don’t want to think about us until you need us.

“Every single day I hear from a family that says they wouldn’t know what to do without us. So at the end of the day, it makes all this hard work worth it. We just want to be there for everybody.”