Death during the coronavirus pandemic has evolved into an especially lonely and risky process for many families — as well as funeral directors — in California.
For Stockton resident Teresa Roldan, the pain of losing her 86-year-old mother, Maria Roldan, to a stroke was worsened by the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. In her final hours, Maria needed a ventilator to breathe, but Teresa said a nurse told her no ventilator was available due to the crush of patients at the hospital.
“She said it, but I can’t believe that she said it. … I was listening to it on TV, but I didn’t expect that I will go through that experience, of someone telling me, ‘Well, we need the ventilator for someone else,’” Teresa said.
Later, when Teresa attended her mother’s funeral with six other family members, she said the process felt dark and lonely as they stood socially distanced from each other at the funeral home.
“It just feels like you don’t have any closure,” she said. “Like you’re still waiting … to have a proper funeral.”
Teresa’s experience is hardly unique in California where, as of Nov. 27, more than 1 million COVID-19 cases have been confirmed with more than 19,000 deaths, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.
Family members don’t attend service, fear catching virus
When Martha Carrillo’s brother and his wife died from COVID-19 in early August, none of her family members wanted to attend the funeral out of fear they would catch the virus.
“I can’t blame them. That’s what killed them, right?” Carrillo said. “We don’t know how they got it, and I didn’t hold it against anybody actually.”
Having to plan one funeral, let alone two, was very unexpected for Carrillo and her family. Along with emotional pain, there was the expense.
“It was not just one service. … He died on a Monday and my sister-in-law died on Tuesday,” she said. “It was just a big [financial] hit.”
In 2019, the national median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial was $7,640, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. A funeral with cremation rather than burial averaged $5,150. Those costs represented an increase of at least $360 from five years earlier.
Carrillo found the money she needed by starting a GoFundMe page, which brought in about $10,000.
But still, the process was unusually painful.
“The bodies were outside, which is, you know, not the norm. There was plexiglass put over the coffin,” Carrillo said, adding that the glass was an additional measure to put her family at ease.
Although the family was told that the bodies had gone through an embalming process, Carrillo said nobody wanted to touch the bodies at the funeral.
“Whereas normally, if you’ve ever been to a funeral before, there’s that sense of closure, where some people touch them and pray over them, you know our traditions … you can’t really have any of that,” she said.
Funeral home director worries about his own health
Luis Claudio, a funeral director at Casa Bonita in Stockton, said although he hasn’t gotten sick from being around deceased bodies with COVID-19, there isn’t enough information to determine whether the virus is present on the body when it’s been embalmed.
“I mean, we assume that it’s not gonna affect anyone,” he said, adding that not much public health guidance has been given to funeral homes. “It’s scary, you know, because, I mean, I have to embalm some people that have COVID. I don’t want to get sick. I have a family too.”
Funeral guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers essentially the same recommendations as for any other gathering — encouraging social distancing, frequent hand-washing and wearing personal protective equipment.
With a possible second wave of COVID-19 cases in California, the process of death will remain difficult — and distant — for families of the deceased, as well as a source of concern for funeral directors.
Teresa hopes that eventually she will be able to give her mother a proper Mass so that the rest of her family can attend.
“She was a very, very loving mother,” Teresa said, “You know, she did the best she could, you know, to be a good mom. I think once the pandemic is over, we plan on doing a mass — for everybody, (for) her relatives.”