‘We are the last responders’: In the time of coronavirus, funeral homes are being pushed to the limit

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — As El Paso’s COVID-19 crisis continues to worsen, El Paso funeral homes are reaching a breaking point.

A total of 10 mobile morgue trailers have been set up throughout El Paso, exemplifying just how serious the COVID crisis is in this border city.

Funeral homes in El Paso have been preparing for this surge, often building or buying their own refrigeration units to handle the increased numbers. Even with the planning, the surge in cases and deaths has been difficult.

“It’s been really rough for funeral homes,” said Salvador Perches, CEO of Perches Funeral Home. “Funeral homes aren’t doing really great right now. The funeral home industry is really hurting.”

Perches said that in the last three months alone, he estimates he has spent at least $100,000 on extra cots, gurneys, walk-in coolers and more.

Howard Holderfield, funeral director for Crestview Funeral Homes, said Crestview is also feeling the squeeze of the pandemic. “We are running very thin,” he said. “We’re the last responders. We are all exhausted.”

An increased number of services is one difficulty for funeral homes, but so are the increased costs they are facing. Those costs stem from the extra precautions staff are taking when dealing with an individual who has died from COVID-related complications.

That means funeral homes are spending more on cleaning supplies and protective equipment and seeing smaller margins from scaled-down services.

Holderfield said cleaning supplies have increased in price, adding that bleach used to be about $1 per gallon and is now around $8 per gallon.

KTSM 9 News received reports of area funeral homes charging a COVID-19 fee, however, the funeral homes we spoke to said they do not charge a COVID fee.

Crestview said that families whose loved ones have died of complications due to coronavirus are dealing with a complicated situation, so there are no additional COVID-related costs for clients. “Families are already going through so much,” said Holderfield.

Christopher Lujan, manager of Sunset Funeral Homes, said they do not charge a COVID fee because it would be unethical at a time like this to do so, adding that they have even provided financial assistance to families dealing with COVID.

As KTSM has reported, El Paso’s Operation Hope has partnered with area funeral homes to provide financial assistance to families.

Perches does not charge a COVID fee but said he any extra charges may come from the increased costs of doing business during a pandemic.

“If there might be an extra charge, that might be because we are holding the bodies for a longer amount of time or because we have to take so much more extra precautions for ourselves, our employees and the families,” said Perches.

But Perches said there is no plan for his funeral homes to charge a COVID fee.

Beyond the financial strains, the emotional difficulty of working in a community in crisis has taken a toll on funeral home employees.

“We’re all emotionally exhausted,” Holderfield said. “We absorb a lot of the pain that the family is going through.”

Perches and Holderfield said they appreciate all the work that first responders do and acknowledge the risks they take in helping a community that is facing a crisis.

But they hope that the community can understand everything that funeral home employees must deal with at a time like this too.

“We deal with the end of life; the emotions; the living and the dead,” Perches said. “We just ask the community to be patient with us.”

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