Escondido, CA

COVID’s reach even into death

Alhiser-Comer Mortuary ready for an outdoor memorial with Thomas Henderson, funeral professional standing by. Flower displays by Rosemary Duff Florist.

The times we’re in are not allowing us to honor the times we’ve lived.

Our pandemic world continues to exact a sad toll even into death, restricting not only our lives but also how we grieve and honor loved ones who have passed away, COVID or not. 

Even our most solemn ceremony, the funeral, is being impacted. 

Demand for funeral services has increased by 300% percent since Thanksgiving,  according to Megan Comer of Alhiser-Comer Mortuary. Mortuaries are working overtime to meet the needs of the mourning community under mandated restrictions.  

Squeezed by the controls imposed by the County’s Public Health Services department, pushed by the County to perform more memorial services as deaths mount, and faced with a rising cry from the public, mortuaries have had to modify services while still providing safe quality care to the community they serve. 

With three times as much work, staff is stretched to the limit.  Funeral homes are providing up to six services per day. 

In Los Angeles, some mortuaries have reached overload and are not answering their phones. They cannot keep up with the demand. 

“Three people have called from Orange County to help them.  Three other funeral homes are saying they are at capacity,” said  Comer, who is president of Alhiser-Comer Mortuary in Escondido. “The County is going to have to come up with some sort of solutions if mortuaries can’t keep up with it. They need to make some provision, maybe getting refrigerated trucks. I have not seen anything like this at this level.”

 She added, “This is usually our busy season. So with COVID it piles on.”

Rodrigo Amador of Funeraria La Paz.

Funeraria La Paz, also in Escondido, has an additional task that slows down the process. Eighty percent of their decedents are waiting for clearance to be shipped to Mexico to their own homes, farms and ranches belonging to their family. This requires extensive paperwork, which in the wake of the pandemic slows to a snail’s pace. 

Death certificates coming from overworked and overwhelmed doctors take longer. County offices are closed. County permits that usually took a day now take weeks via regular mail.  Paperwork from the Mexican Consulate requires an appointment. That now takes about a week. Consequently, close to 100 decedents are on hold waiting to be processed. 

“Ship-outs or transfers before COVID took three to five days.  Now, it takes three to four weeks,” said Rodrigo Amador of Funeraria LaPaz.

The backlog is huge—requiring crematoriums to process as many as they can. 

“We are at our max. We cremate the maximum allowed which are six per day.  The number never goes down,” Comer said. 

Meanwhile, David Perfito, founder and Phil Barrick, president of White Rose Aqua Cremation have been waiting for years for approval from Sacramento to open their doors in Escondido. Everything is in place and operational. They have been ready since July 2020 but the paperwork has stalled in Sacramento government offices. 

Aqua cremation, also known as “alkaline hydrolysis” is an innovative cremation technique that does not use flames to process the body. Water that is five percent alkaline achieves the same result. With the concern over carbon emissions, this system is a lot more “green” with a very limited carbon footprint. 

Perfito and Barrick see the irony. Because of the mounting deaths, LA County has lifted air pollution control regulations that limited traditional crematories to a certain amount per day. Now they are allowed to process as many as they can. San Diego County may follow soon. 

“In the meantime we are physically able to do it with zero emissions,” said Perfito. Given the backlog of some 2,700 bodies needing to be processed in LA alone, White Rose Aqua Cremation is ready and willing to lessen the burden but their hands are tied.   

 “We are only a few key strokes away to get this permitting process done. Here we are with an expensive facility, the first one in California. The process is legal in 20 other states. Bordering states like Nevada and Oregon have approved it,” said Perfito. 

Their frustration at not being able to move ahead and make a difference during this crisis is mounting. 

Nicole Comer-Lockrem, funeral director and Thomas Henderson, funeral professional moving a casket into position.

“We can manage 120 a month, 30 a week.  A huge hand to help in this situation,” Perfito. said. ‘We would love to be able to reach out to funeral homes to assist them but for the cog in the wheel.”

In the meantime grieving families and friends are forced to cope with the delays and the limitations that the pandemic has imposed; creating even more stress.  

Faced with these hurdles, funeral homes have had to come up with new ways to provide comfort and solace to families, keep up with the increased demand and take care of themselves as they face long hours and fend off burnout or empathy fatigue.   

Alhiser-Comer Mortuary is a part of Escondido History as the city’s oldest continually operating business dating as far back as 1893.  Comer and her sister Nicole Comer-Lockrem, the funeral director, are carrying the torch that was handed down to them from their father and his father before. 

“For me it is about serving families.  I am really big to do what we can to help people during the hardest time in their life.  It is an honor to help them feel less stressed and more peaceful,” said Comer.

But how do you social distance when you want to give a grieving person a hug and hold them while they cry? How can you “be there” for someone when you can’t be there? 

How can you say goodbye to a parent or grandparent you have not been able to see for close to a year due to the lockdown and who may have just given up and died from loneliness? 

How do you deal with the frustration, anger and guilt?

This is the pain and suffering that funeral homes contend with on a daily basis. 

Comer knows that grieving families want suitable ways to say goodbye to their loved ones. They need closure. Memorials and Celebrations of Life are means to that end where family and friends gather sharing stories, reminiscing, comforting, nurturing and offering support through their presence. It is part of the necessary grieving and subsequent healing process. 

But when funeral homes can host a maximum 10 people indoors and many more family members and friends want to participate, this makes it difficult. 

As a result some are choosing to postpone the service for about six months. 

“Grieving steps you onto a path,” said Comer. “When it is taken from you it is hard to justify it in your mind. They don’t have that moment. A lot of families are putting things off until maybe next summer. This extends that grieving longer.”

Alhiser Comer indoor hugs from home: “White Helium filled balloons with messages from loved ones fill empty chairs at Alhiser-Comer Mortuary Chapel.”

As an alternative, funeral homes have had to come up with solutions. Many set up tents in their parking lot to allow for more to assemble for viewings or memorial services. Socially distanced chairs are placed facing a tent as an alcove with one side lifted. Inside: the coffin, urn or photo of the departed. Flowers can be added. People are asked to wear masks and keep safe distance. Hand sanitizers are available. But the numbers of people who attend are still very limited. People are avoiding large gatherings. When there were hundreds of people in attendance in the past, there are now maybe around 30 who come to pay their respects.  

Inside ceremonies are still offered but allowing only 10 people. Mortuaries have come up with ways to include those who cannot be there. Many are offering a media live stream platform that allows for large numbers of people to meet virtually. 

They foresee that this will be an ongoing service even after all restrictions are lifted. It is a convenient way for distant friends and relatives to attend without having to leave their homes. 

Melissa Rainey, founder of Eternally Loved, is an event coordinator strictly dealing with celebration of life and memorial ceremonies and events. She saw the need to lift the stress of planning and coordinating to allow families to tend to their own grief and freely visit and reminisce about a loved one. 

She has organized about 70 events in the past six years but it all stopped after COVID hit. With get-togethers not happening, she too is relying on video technology to fill the void and come up with imaginative ways to recreate a commemorative gathering electronically. Not only does it lack the human touch, it requires that everyone be proficient with computers and the system.  Although a necessary and doable alternative, it is nevertheless difficult to replicate an in-person event where food and beverages are offered and conversation flows freely and smoothly. There is something to be said about “being there.”

Circumstances however dictate necessity. 

Alhiser-Comer installed a camera in their chapel to live-stream events and created a unique way to fill the room. They have initiated a “Hugs from Home” program. To replace loved ones who can’t be there, they are offering an opportunity to write a message that is fastened to a helium filled white balloon attached to each empty chair surrounding the grieving in attendance.  

“You want your family and friends around you,” said Comer. 

Although it is not the same as having the actual turnout of friends and family, it does give a sense of their presence via the balloons as each card is read during the event. 

People are now also considering and opting for home viewings where the deceased can be there for a longer time and more people can come in and out to pay their last respects. 

Comer and her staff are seeing intense suffering compounded by guilt that family members feel, not having been able to visit or see their elderly relatives confined to locked down nursing homes for close to a year. There is a lot of angst. They want to see their loved one and want to provide a fitting and worthy farewell. They are frustrated that they cannot do what they would like to do given the circumstances. 

“It is awful for families trying to come up with ideas,” said Comer. “We do whatever we can to give families the opportunity to give a final goodbye, to have the service they want but for them often it is lacking due to the constraints,” said Comer. “We want to help heal that raw wound that they are experiencing.”

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time to mourn and a time to dance. COVID has stolen it all. 

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