Border funeral homes overwhelmed by surge in COVID-19 fatalities

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Facilities forced to buy more refrigeration units, wait for space at cemeteries and enforce social distancing on families during visitation

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – In the era of COVID-19, grief knows no borders.

That’s especially true in a community like El Paso, where many families have relatives across the border in Juarez, Mexico, and vice versa.

“We are transferring family members who passed away here to Juarez and family members who passed away in Juarez to El Paso,” said Jorge A. Ortiz, general manager of Perches Funeral Homes. “Sometimes it’s both parents, a brother, a sister… just this past week we had a mother and a son. What we’re encountering is very, very sad.”

Perches operates five funeral homes in El Paso and eight in Juarez. The El Paso side of the franchise has gone from holding 30 funerals a week prior to the pandemic to 80 now. The situation in Juarez is even more hectic, Ortiz said.

The higher volume coincides with a surge in coronavirus-related fatalities in both cities. El Paso had 557 confirmed COVID-19 deaths a month ago while Juarez had 992. By Wednesday, El Paso’s death toll had risen to 804 (+247) and Juarez’s to 1,709 (+710).

The increase means longer wait times at cemeteries and is forcing funeral homes to accommodate bodies longer than usual in both cities.

Perches this year purchased new, more spacious refrigeration units to replace two older ones. The funeral home recently reactivated its older units because all four are needed.

The City and County of El Paso find themselves in a similar predicament before releasing bodies to the funeral homes. The Medical Examiner’s Office is operating 10 mobile morgues on its premises.

“We are coordinating with the local cemeteries; they’re also on a schedule,” Ortiz said. “Families have been very understanding of the situation. They do have to wait several days for visitation (and burial) either because we don’t have the chapel available that day or it’s available but the cemetery is not.”

COVID-19 has also changed the way people grieve.

Jorge A. Ortiz, manager of Perches Funeral Homes in El Paso. The company runs 13 funeral homes in El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

“It used to be people passed away (surrounded) by their family at home or at the hospital,” Ortiz said. Now, “they leave them at the hospital and don’t see them again until visitation (at the funeral home) many weeks or even months later.”

That’s because hospitals are limiting contact between COVID-19 patients and relatives, and because relatives themselves are abstaining from frequent visits out of fear of catching the virus.

Prior to COVID-19, family members usually embraced or cried at each other’s shoulders at funerals. Today, funeral arrangements are made over the telephone or Zoom videoconferencing and funeral home personnel encourage relatives of the diseased to abstain from hugging or shaking hands and to observe coronavirus prevention measures during visitation.

“We do explain that during the conference. We have personnel that accompanies the family during visitation making sure they are following the proper guidance,” Ortiz said.

The non-stop string of funerals takes a toll on funeral home employees as well. “We are still human, and we deal with a lot of emotions, stress. Here, minutes become hours with the high volume of work. It’s very normal for everyone to feel emotion, but you have to maintain control, take care of yourself, use (protective) equipment,” he said.

A shrine to Perches Funeral Homes founder Salvador Perches stands inside a museum on the franchises West El Paso location. Perches opened his first funeral home in Juarez in the 1950s. The franchise expanded to El Paso in the mid-1990s. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

Perches has lost one of its directors to the pandemic as well.

The Rev. Harrison B. Johnson headed the Northeast El Paso Perches office. “That Friday he came in to work and called me. He said ‘I’m not feeling good, I’m vomiting. I have a fever.’ I said, go home for sure. He went to the hospital Saturday morning,” Ortiz said.

Months passed and Johnson, an Army veteran and senior pastor at Praise Temple Full Gospel Baptist Church, seemed to improve, being moved from the hospital to a rehab center, Ortiz said.

“We thought, he’s not at the hospital anymore, hopefully he’ll come back” soon, Ortiz said. “I was making plans the day before (he died) hoping he was going to come back. I was being very positive. The next time we saw him was at his visitation. It was totally unexpected. […] We have directors on our team that have been in the business more than 40 years. This is something they have never seen before. Never in their careers, never in their lives.”

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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