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The New York Times

‘A Nightmare Every Day’: Inside an Overwhelmed Funeral Home

LOS ANGELES — 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 Thursday afternoon last month 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 makeup. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times 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 math 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 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 center 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 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. At the entrance of the chapel lobby, look first to the left: four bodies under white sheets on hardware-store-style metal shelves originally designed to hold something other than human lives. Next to those four were another four, and more in the middle, and more to the right. The 31 bodies on the shelves rested on plywood and cardboard beds, their heads on Styrofoam block pillows. The racks were so tall in one corner that the finial of an ornate chandelier cleared it by inches. Bodies in coffins were rolled out. Bodies on stretchers were rolled in. Their uniformity was disrupted by the smallest details: a tuft of a woman’s long black hair spilling out of the top of her sheets, a right foot. “We don’t know how the public will see it, but it was necessary,” Maldonado said of the chapel’s conversion. “The need brought us to improvise. We’re in America, so we suppose that we are prepared for everything. But in this emergency that we had, we were not.” 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. Victor Hernandez helped push a new one in, the 19th body. He was one of the newest employees of Continental Funeral Home. 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 Maldonado had posted at the corner: “Now Hiring!” He started a few weeks ago, making $15 an hour, plus overtime. The co-worker who helped him push the stretcher down the middle of the trailer, 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,” 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, 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 specialized, misunderstood field. “I feel like for me this job was a calling,” said 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.” Maldonado, Continental’s owner, said that about 25% 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,” Maldonado said. “So for me, I just go home, take a shower and stay home.” In some ways, Continental is a workplace like any other. Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses blare from the radio in the embalming room. Workers walk through the halls after lunch sipping from sodas from McDonald’s. Murillo talks about refurbishing his 1967 VW Beetle. Hernandez, in an Iron Maiden knit cap, talks about producing his own music. In tight quarters, at a hurried pace, with coffins and stretchers streaming past, mistakes are made. One afternoon, Hernandez bent down into the racks and jostled the arm of the dead man on the bottom shelf. “Sorry, buddy,” he told him. The Numbers Overwhelm The calendar 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. Maldonado and her managers estimate the total number of bodies at Continental’s East Los Angeles site 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. 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. They bought a house in nearby Fontana big enough for the entire family to live together, including their children and grandchildren. Luisa Hoyos worked at the adult-care facility with her daughter. One of their co-workers infected Hoyos and her daughter, family members said, and they brought the virus home to Fontana. 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 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, Anayeli Hoyos, 38. “I know COVID is going to go away, but we’re marked. We’re marked for the rest of our lives.” 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. The pent-up grief spills out daily in the parking lot that has become Continental’s new outdoor chapel. Traffic speeds by on Beverly Boulevard, drowning out some eulogies. Pedestrians and postal workers cut across behind the folding chairs, mid-ceremony. The mariachis strum Mexican ballads as relatives break down next to the traffic cones. Amada Perez Rodriguez, 79, a mother of two and grandmother of seven, died of the coronavirus Jan. 6. Her funeral was Feb. 10. “It’s very frustrating, agonizing,” said her son, Moises Perez, 45, as he stood in the parking lot after her funeral. “On her last breath, she was more concerned about us than her own health. I remember telling her, ‘How are you doing, Mom?’ And she said, ‘No, how are the kids? How are you doing?’” Vicenta Bahena, 54, contracted the virus at a laundromat. Everyone in her household was infected, including her longtime partner, Serafin Salgado, 47, a dump truck driver. All recovered, except Bahena, who was born in Iguala, Mexico, and raised three sons. She died Jan. 26 at a hospital in the city of Inglewood. Salgado had initially thought 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,” Salgado said. Bahena finally arrived at Continental more than two weeks after she died. “I want to rest, and stop thinking that she’s in the cold while I’m warm at home,” Salgado said. He and Bahena had been together three decades but never legally married. They had planned to marry this year. Last week at Continental, in a hallway marked by so much death, near a row of empty upright coffins, there was a glimpse of life, on a hanger. It was Bahena’s wedding dress, wrapped in plastic, awaiting her funeral. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company



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