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Arizona Republic: Arizona Funeral Homes Becoming Overwhelmed

Published: Wednesday, February 10, 2021 - 12:33pm
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The Arizona Republic
Anne Ryman

MARK BRODIE: Even as the number of new COVID-19 infections has been declining in Arizona, the state still has one of the highest death rates from COVID-related illness in the country. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Arizona has almost 196 deaths per 100,000 in population — that's the eighth-highest rate in the country. And that's put funeral homes here under a lot of stress in recent months. Investigative reporter Anne Ryman has written about this in the Arizona Republic, and she's with me to talk about what she's found out. And, Anne, what exactly, where exactly is this industry at the moment?

ANNE RYMAN: Sure, what's happening in Arizona is because of the high death rate — it's really impacting the funeral homes right now. People are having to wait, in some cases, up to two weeks to have a funeral service for their loved one. And funeral directors are working really long hours. In fact, I talked to a funeral director the other day who has not had a day off in months. And they're also, the larger funeral homes are having to move, you know, vehicles and staff around to the busier locations to just try to kind of meet the demand that's going on.

BRODIE: And this is mostly or exclusively because of COVID-19, right?

RYMAN: Much of it, we believe, is. They also mentioned to me, they think anecdotally, they're seeing people who maybe have not gone to the doctor or are putting off some sort of medical procedures. And that could also be resulting in some of the deaths as well.

BRODIE: So you write that this is typically a busy time of year for these folks, but how much busier is it now than what they're used to?

RYMAN: A lot of the funeral directors in the Valley area are telling me that they're, they are seeing increases of anywhere from 30 to 50% more than what they typically do this time of year. So it is a really marked increase.

BRODIE: And how are they trying to deal with this? You mentioned they're moving resources around and in some cases, families are having to wait maybe a couple of weeks or longer to actually have a funeral. But how are the funeral homes and the staff and the directors there trying to get through all this?

RYMAN: You know, they're really taking it one day at a time. One thing that has helped a bit is that a lot of the arrangements where you, typically when somebody passes away, you have to go into the funeral home. Usually you'd go in in person and make the arrangements and pick out like a casket or urn and talk with them in person about, you know, what kind of desire you might have for the funeral service. Much of that now is being done virtually just because of [COVID-19]. So in a sense, that's a bit of a time saver for them, although, you know, no one kind of likes to do that over the phone or over the web, but that is saving them a little bit of time. The other thing is a lot of people are forgoing large funerals, so there may not even be services right now that are taking place. So I think that's helping them a bit deal with kind of the influx that they're seeing. But it is still overwhelming for some of them.

BRODIE: Well, what happens if they just get overwhelmed? Like, if they don't get a drop at some point? Like, what happens then?

RYMAN: There are a lot of laws and regulations that funeral directors have to follow. And I speak from experience in that — when I was in college, I worked for a funeral home for a period of time. And so there was a lot of different things they have to follow as far as the proper disposition of, of human remains. For example, if somebody is going to be cremated, they have to refrigerate the human remains until the cremation takes place. So if you're a funeral director and you are overwhelmed and you have, you know, if you find yourself in a position where you have, you know, just too many human remains on your premises, what you're supposed to do at that point is a family would call you. You would then turn down the service and just say, "You know, I would really like to help you right now, but I can't, you know, I might refer you to somebody across town."

BRODIE: So you also reported something interesting, that there are some issues with getting death certificates signed, which is kind of holding up this process. What's happening there?

RYMAN: Yes, this was a big kind of surprise to me is that, you know, doctors have 72 hours to sign the death certificate. And, you know, the funeral director needs this signature in order to cremate or, you know, inter the body. So this has been, I guess, my understanding is it's kind of been a problem for some time and it's become, you know, just exaggerated because of [COVID-19], where you're having, basically a signature is holding up the whole process. And some of the funeral directors I've talked to said it typically tends to be the same doctors that maybe do this. But because now you have [COVID-19], and you have so many more deaths, it's really becoming a problem. And they say, you know, there is a law that says you have to sign within 72 hours. But the funeral directors say there's really no penalties associated with that law. And so they would like to see perhaps somebody kind of step in and take some more enforcement in that area.

BRODIE: Do we know why some doctors are not doing this in the amount of time that they have to?

RYMAN: Anecdotally, the funeral directors were telling me, you know, there could be a worry that if you put a cause of death down, you know, they could be perhaps civilly liable for that or they worry about lawsuits. But, you know, there is a, there is a method in the law where you can correct or amend a death certificate later. So they don't really see that as kind of a valid reason for holding up the process. You know, the other thing could be, obviously, is, is funeral directors, like almost every other profession, and doctors, like every other profession, you know, doctors are overwhelmed right now. And it could be also an issue of, you know, they're trying to see their patients and they're having so much paperwork at the end of the day that it's hard to get to everything.

BRODIE: Right. One of the other things that you write about, which I thought was really interesting, and you referenced it earlier, how some people are forgoing funerals or forgoing large funerals. You spoke with some folks with one of the Catholic dioceses in town, and it seems as though the Catholic rites of burial are changing dramatically around town as well, right?

RYMAN: They really are. You, what has typically been a three-part, you know, ceremony where you have a vigil, you know, the night before, and then you might have a funeral and then a burial service or committal service is really becoming maybe two parts or maybe only one part. And one of the families I spoke with, you know, they were just doing a simple burial service and, you know, they had to wait two weeks for that.

BRODIE: All right. That is Anne Ryman, investigative reporter with the Arizona Republic. Anne, as always, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

RYMAN: Thank you.

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