Bay Area funeral homes overwhelmed by latest coronavirus surge

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, so too is the number of people dying from it. Many Bay Area funeral homes are seeing staggering increases first hand.

"We are seeing an uptick in deaths with COVID on the death certificate," said Robert Gordon, president of Cypress Lawn in Colma.

If doctors and nurses are among the first responders in the COVID pandemic, then those who work at funeral homes could perhaps be considered the last responders.

Cypress Lawn had been seeing an average of 10 COVID deaths a month, until lately.

"We should surpass double the number of families that lost someone due to COVID in the month of December," Gordon said.

With COVID-19 deaths in California reaching more than 300 a day on some days, Governor Gavin Newsom announced this week the state has ordered 5,000 body bags.

Cypress Lawn purchased two refrigeration units at the start of the pandemic just in case there was an overflow of bodies. So far they haven't been needed.

What is needed are tents. That's where funeral services must take place, outdoors only, because of the health restrictions.

"We might have 10,15,20 people underneath a tent where we can socially distance and watch on a big screen some of their life memories," said Gordon.

About 35 miles away at Valley Memorial Park Cemetery in Novato, Friday afternoon, funeral home manager Mark Mulholland was getting ready for an outdoor service that had originally been planned in the indoor chapel.

The funeral directors also must help families who were never able to say goodbye to a loved one because hospitals are locked down.

"So they haven't had the opportunity to have closure or even mourn the loss. So they come to see me in a highly extended emotional range," said funeral home manager Mark Mulholland.

The sadness and the sheer totals of this pandemic can take their toll on those whose job it is to help people say goodbye.

"The emotions of what we do, whether we are helping the family with the funeral arrangements or directing a service is very draining. Then you are still having to think about your own personal safety and the safety of your family when you go home after work. It's a lot. It's a lot," Gordon said.

Health experts say the death toll from COVID is expected to get even worse in the weeks after Christmas and New Year's.