‘The perfect storm’: Local mortuary struggling to keep up with demand

The entrance of Eternal Valley Memorial Park & Mortuary in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal
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As the COVID-19 surge has continued to overwhelm hospitals over the past couple of months, it has also dramatically impacted the mortuaries where many of the pandemic’s victims end up.

Where many funeral homes have been left with no choice but to turn away families whose loved ones have died, Eternal Valley Memorial Park & Mortuary is doing what they can to avoid having to do the same.

“It’s soul-crushing,” said Anthony Lampe, director of Dignity Memorial, which owns Eternal Valley. “We want to be there to support the community. … Our intention is to at least be the one person that can help people … so we’ve decided that we’re going to bend over backward to accommodate, no matter what we have to do.”

Lampe has called in every reinforcement he can think of, from bringing his brother, a licensed embalmer, out of retirement to setting up virtual funeral arrangements with funeral directors who work elsewhere.

“That’s the kind of thing we’re doing is we’re reaching out to folks we know that can just help supplement, 1) to handle the additional volume, and then 2) a lot of our employees are working 10-12 hours a day, seven days, and there’s some fatigue kicking in, so we’re trying to put in some relief there,” Lampe added. “These guys are warriors, they’re really working hard.”

Even so, there are conditions as to what can be achieved, which means they still need to ask families to consider immediate disposition, meaning a quick interment or cremation with memorial services to follow at a later date, so that they don’t overwhelm their capacity.

This comes as the requests for the mortuary’s services are up three to four times the normal expectation for a month, Lampe said. 

“I’ve been in this business just about 30 years, and I’ve worked around people that have been doing it longer, and none of us have ever seen anything like this,” he added. “This is clearly a different thing compared to the worst-case scenario we’ve ever seen before. … It’s like every day, it’s a disaster after disaster after disaster — it’s sort of the perfect storm.” 

While it’s hard to know the exact numbers, Lampe figures 30-40% of the deceased are COVID-related, directly or indirectly, due to the strains on the health care system.

Even so, the perfect solution has remained a moving target as COVID-19 continues to surge. 

“What it was a few weeks ago, what is today, the kind of decisions I might be putting out tomorrow could all be a little bit different,” Lampe said. “It’s hard to say — nobody can really tell us what it’s going to look like in the next two, three, four, five weeks.”

With refrigeration and storage capacity being of utmost concern, Eternal Valley has joined many other mortuaries in quick-ordering refrigerated storage containers.

“The system is built for so much and already overwhelmed in some ways, so we had to extend it by quite a bit — four times what it would normally be,” Lampe said.

These are the same type of storage units the Los Angeles County Coroner-Medical Examiner has had set up outside its office since April of last year. 

“The units have remained largely unused until recently,” County Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas said in a prepared statement released last week. “DMEC has sufficient storage for current needs; however, the department is expanding capacity to meet potential future demands. … While there has been an increase in bodies, DMEC feels confident in managing the effects of the pandemic with the aid of our partners at Cal OES.”

At Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, a back-up morgue has been put into use, as it’s primary morgue has reached capacity, according to hospital spokesman Patrick Moody.

“We have put our back-up morgue into operation to ensure all our deceased patients are treated with dignity and respect,” Moody said in a statement released Thursday.

The Oaks Chapel sits at the entrance of Eternal Valley Memorial Park & Mortuary in Newhall. Courtesy

At Eternal Valley, a small chapel on the grounds also has recently been turned into an overflow storage area for bodies that don’t need to be in a cold storage facility.

“We’re going to have to redo that whole building after, obviously, tear it all out, fix it up again,” Lampe added.

And, as with any essential business, staffing has also been difficult, as the risk of COVID-19 exposure remains high.

“We are cleaning and sanitizing things at such a high level, I can just tell by the amount of supplies we’re running through that it’s a constant cleaning of the vehicles,cleaning of the facility, cleaning of the environment,” Lampe said. “I think part of that is because we’re sending the message to our staff that, ‘Hey, we care about you, we need you, so we’re gonna make sure that we sanitize as much as we can to minimize any exposure.’” 

For Lampe, who is doing his best to ensure both his staff and his community are cared for, it’s difficult to know what will come next.

“I just pray for patience in the community, I hope people are understanding that the scheduling and the timing of things is sort of abnormal,” he said.

The Oaks Chapel sits at the entrance of Eternal Valley Memorial Park & Mortuary in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal

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