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Strained Funeral Homes In Los Angeles County Turn Away Bereaved Families

NOEL KING, HOST:

Most of us, thankfully, don't have to think too often about the logistics of death and dying - about what closure wakes, funerals, memorials actually requires. Todd Beckley has to, though. He's a funeral director in Los Angeles County. He's not at all scared of death. He's been doing this job for 55 years. But he told me he has never experienced anything like the coronavirus pandemic.

TODD BECKLEY: You are literally so overwhelmed with decedents you just run out of room - every embalming table, every gurney, every table that you have in the facility. And unfortunately, what occurs is families will call and we have to literally tell the family that we have no space and that we're not able to take their loved one into our care. And we have a waiting list, and right now on that waiting list we have 23 families that are waiting to have their loved ones picked up at hospitals, at coroner's offices or other facilities.

KING: That's a very difficult thing to hear. It just strikes me that part of your job is helping people. You help them grieve. You help them get a sense of closure. And you can't do that right now for many people.

BECKLEY: No, you can't. In the normal times, when a death occurs, a family would say, can we have - let's say the death occurred on a Monday - can we have a service on Thursday? And we'd say, absolutely. Well, now we have to tell the family that, you know, we're scheduling services in February, so we're not going to be able to serve them for three to four weeks.

KING: Do families in their grief understand this?

BECKLEY: You know, the majority of families say, we understand. The people that yell at us the most, in all due respect, are the hospitals because they are overwhelmed, and they have someone who's died, and we're telling the hospital, I'm sorry; we can't send a car. And that's why you're finding in California, especially, hospitals are erecting, you know, refrigerator trucks in every parking lot that they can just to accommodate the number of decedents that they have.

KING: I read something this week that I found really striking, which is that air quality regulators have lifted the limits on how many people can be cremated in large parts of Southern California. When you heard that, what went through your mind? Did that immediately make sense to you or...

BECKLEY: It makes total sense to me. You know, we're dealing with some issues that - if I may share.

KING: Please.

BECKLEY: The health department, they're operating regular business hours. Every death that occurs in California, the death certificate has to be filed with the county health department, and a permit has to be issued by that department. And if the department's closed - and, for instance, at Christmas and New Year's, they closed the day before the holiday. They were closed the holiday. They were closed the weekend. Four days funeral directors in the state weren't able to file death certificates or get permits for cremation or burial. And that really affects the backlog.

Now, you heard about the crematory issue in lifting the regulations. We were informed there's a burial vault shortage. So families that have ground burial may find that when they go to the cemetery, the cemetery says that I am sorry; we don't have a burial vault for your loved one, and we won't have one for 15 or 20 days. There is a shortage of cardboard boxes for cremation. We haven't been affected yet, but that's been in the news.

KING: You are not just working in Southern California; you also live there. I understand that you did lose a cousin last week. It wasn't to COVID, but you did have a death in the family.

BECKLEY: I did.

KING: What happened with your cousin?

BECKLEY: You know, I could have told my cousin, absolutely, and brought my cousin into our care. But that would mean another family couldn't be served. So unfortunately, I had to tell my cousin that we did not have any space in our facility and that I would assist her in finding someone that did. You know, that's the situation you're placed with. Literally, when you tell a family we have no space, they have to begin making phone calls to see what mortuaries have spaces available. And I've been doing this since 1965, and I've never seen anything like this.

KING: What are your coping mechanisms for all of this? How are you handling yourself?

BECKLEY: You know, I'm doing fine.

KING: Yeah?

BECKLEY: I think just being in this business as long as I have, you realize that death is a part of life. None of us are going to get off this earth alive. You don't expect a pandemic, but you have to deal with what you're handed. One other thing I want to mention - you know, we talked about the health department and crematory regulations. Mortuaries ship remains to other countries all the time. It's repatriation. The family lives in Argentina; they want their loved one buried there. And it was a very simple procedure. We would go to the secretary of state's office in Los Angeles. They would give us authorization to ship to Argentina or whatever country you were shipping to.

Now the secretary of state has closed their Los Angeles office. The only way that you can get permission to ship out of the country is with the secretary of state's office in Sacramento. And everything has to be done by mail. We have remains in our refrigeration unit for well over a month, waiting to be shipped out of state. And it's just so disheartening that the secretary of state won't step up to the plate so that this moves along much more swiftly.

KING: Todd Beckley is the president of Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary in Los Angeles County. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.