COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are declining statewide, but getting departed loved ones to their final resting spot is lagging for some in Colorado.
Increased COVID-related deaths in the last quarter of 2020 and the interruption of the holidays mean it’s all-hands-on-deck for the bereavement industry.
“Before COVID-19 we were very busy; during COVID-19 we have been extremely busy,” said Franklin O. McCulley, whose family has owned Angelus Chapel Funeral Directors and Cremation Services in southern Colorado for 52 years.
Many funeral directors in the Pikes Peak region say they don’t have time to talk about how hectic their days are. Some have answering services fielding their calls.
“I had a funeral at the Shrine of Remembrance, and they said where they’d normally get 30 calls in a month prior to COVID, now they’re getting 70 calls,” said the Rev. Richard Bowles, a deacon at St. Paul Catholic Church in Colorado Springs.
Pandemic deaths haven’t created the need for portable morgues in Colorado, however, like in New York and California with their refrigerated trucks. California was forced to lift statewide limitations last week on how many cremations can be performed in a day to speed up the system.
Meanwhile, life celebrations and memorial services in Colorado, many long-delayed by the pandemic, are expected to spike later this year when people are more able to comfortably congregate.
Along with high numbers of murders, traffic fatalities and suicides last year, coronavirus deaths in the Pikes Peak region have pushed the industry to the brink, but it hasn't toppled.
“Basically, every funeral home is seeing an increase (in business),” said Brian Smith of Affordable Crematory in Colorado Springs, which temporarily has halted viewings and in-person services due to the coronavirus.
Smith calls the situation “the hurry up and wait process,” which he said happens when more deaths than usual occur.
Part of the holdup can be in recording and certifying the cause and manner of death by a doctor, coroner or medical examiner.
The average time is nine days after someone dies, said Kirk Bol, manager of the Vital Statistics Program at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Overall, the state has not seen a significant increase in delays during the pandemic, he said.
Certification for COVID deaths, as with cancer, heart disease or old age, take less time, Bol said, while deaths by suicide, homicide and drug overdoses usually range from two to four weeks.
Cremations or burials can’t be scheduled until that first step of certification occurs, said Jeff Black, a manager at Blake Funeral and Cremation Services in Arvada.
Sharing a crematory — when a funeral home without such a facility shares the use of one at another business — also can affect when a loved one’s ashes are received, Black said, but “it hasn’t been weeks or months, usually just a few days longer.”
At All-States Cremation in Colorado Springs, getting cremains back normally takes five business days, according to a representative. The wait time now is five to seven business days, she said.
Colorado law limits cremations to three per day per crematory to reduce air pollution.
“We have more cases to be cremated than three per day,” McCulley said. “If you divide that up, it’s going to take a little longer.”
Black calls the emissions released “a huge misconception about crematories.”
“We have less than 1% of emissions in the first 30 seconds of startup, usually due to the box or container the body is placed in,” he said.
Bodies are encased “in a dignified manner” in a rigid cardboard box and possibly a sealed bag. Needles or other hospital waste, clothing, flowers and items such as photos also might be included.
“That’s where you get the emissions,” Black said. “It’s not from the body itself.”
COVID precautions are being taken throughout the procedure, including with unembalmed bodies, Black said.
Also, services are still restricted in terms of attendees. Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver can have only 10 people in a shelter, for example.
Colorado has not experienced anything like what’s been seen on national news, Smith said.
“We’re not just inundated with COVID patients,” Smith said.
Wave of services expected
Burials have declined dramatically statewide in the past 45 years, according to the Vital Statistics Program of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Of the state’s 18,380 deaths in 1975, 66% of the deceased were buried and 11% were cremated.
Burials reached a record low in 2020.
Just 17% of the 47,548 people who died in Colorado last year were buried, and 75% were cremated. The remainder of the bodies were donated to science, shipped out of state or marked as unknown.
Burials at Evergreen and Fairview cemeteries decreased by about 100 in 2020, said Supervisor Kelly Stevenson.
Of the 520 burials, 30% were cremated remains.
Space and expense are the reasons people prefer cremation, said Bowles, the deacon at St. Paul Church.
Even so, churches, funeral homes and cemeteries are preparing for a rush of memorial services when the pandemic reaches the point that people feel comfortable traveling and being in group settings again.
“We’re seeing a lull now because people are saving cremated ashes until restrictions have lightened and they can have bigger services,” Stevenson said. “I’m going to assume there will be a floodgate, and we may have an overwhelming amount.”
Angelus Chapel is scheduling life remembrances and memorial services into the spring and summer, McCulley said, as people expect normalcy to return with widespread vaccine distribution.
People desire “a chance to let go,” and find closure, Bowles said.
“It’s harder to go on living after someone you love dies, and it gives people comfort to have a service,” he said. “We have a number of families who are waiting for a celebration of life.”
While any death of a loved one is difficult, COVID deaths seem to have a different feel, McCulley said.
“We see the grieving escalating,” he said. “Many haven’t seen their loved one since March; that brings a different type of pain.”
That’s why it’s important for funeral homes, mortuaries and crematories to provide personalized service, no matter how busy they are, something McCulley said his business has emphasized since starting in the business in 1968.
A manager at Angelus Chapel went shopping to find a specific outfit the daughter of a 98-year-old Colorado Springs woman who died with COVID in December wanted to bury her mother in. The suit and blouse the manager found was very similar to how the mother was dressed in a photo from 20 years ago.
The daughter, who asked not to be named, said that extra touch got her through the tough situation.
“My mother looked simply beautiful and elegant and aristocratic,” the daughter said. “They were able to show the essence of my mom and her personality and make us feel very comfortable.”