In mid-August, Rosetta Wilson began to feel sick. She stayed in and rested, hoping whatever it was would pass.
By Aug. 28, she was having trouble breathing and her sister called for the paramedics to rush her to the hospital.
“Rosetta was a home-health nursing assistant, but she had not been vaccinated,” said her younger sister, Patricia Malone. “In July, she had decided to go and get vaccinated. When she went to the site, the line was too long, and she didn’t get it that day.”
When Wilson was hospitalized, she tested positive for COVID-19. Waiting there in ICU for a bed was the last time Malone saw her sister alive.
“On Sunday, Sept. 5, when I called to check on her, they told me her oxygen level was low, and they were doing everything they could. She died, even with a ventilator. They let me in the room to see her once she had passed away.”
As devastating as losing her sister is, Malone said another distressing ordeal occurred when she and other family members got to the funeral home and found it “crowded” with other families waiting to schedule final arrangements for their loved ones.
“We went there to make arrangements for Rosetta’s funeral,” said Malone. “There were so many people there, families trying to get funerals scheduled for their relatives. I mean, it was actually crowded with people trying to do the same thing we were doing.
“When N.J. Ford (Funeral Home) told us that the next available date would be Sept. 20, I just couldn’t believe this was happening.”
According to mortuary professionals, this is not an isolated incident.
“This is happening with funeral homes across the country, not just there in Memphis,” said Dr. Carol Williams, executive director of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Associations (NFD&MA) in Atlanta. “The high number of COVID-19 deaths is creating a situation where funeral directors are having issues scheduling services in a timely manner.”
According to Williams, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating an already critical state of the mortuary industry prior to the pandemic.
“There were other factors making timely scheduled funerals a real challenge,” said Williams. “Cemeteries can’t keep up with the demand. They have to dig enough graves for funerals being scheduled. There is a shortage of merchandise. Supply is not keeping up with demand.”
A story in Wednesday’s (Sept. 15) edition of The Washington Post reported the country had reached a “grim milestone as 1 in 500 Americans have died of covid-19.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee has the most coronavirus infections of all U.S. states in the past seven days and over the entire pandemic when adjusted for population, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
“All of these variables (regarding supply issues) were happening before the pandemic,” said Williams.
“Shortages of merchandise, funeral home employees, cemetery employees – this is affecting funeral home directors everywhere, all across the country. Every region is experiencing the same challenges.”
Andre Jones, funeral director at R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home, said adjustments are being made to try and meet the increased demand.
“The higher number of funerals has increased our work week from six days to seven days,” said Jones. “We are on call 24/7, because death can happen at any time.
“Deaths from the pandemic tapped down in May when the case numbers went way down. You might get a coronavirus death every 8-10 days. Now, there are more cases and more deaths. Death is quicker, also. A person may go into the hospital one day, and they have passed three days later.”
Joe Ford of Joe Ford Funeral Home said issues with scheduling funerals and keeping up with the higher death rate has more to do with the cemeteries, rather than his funeral staff.
“I had to bring a young man back to the funeral home today because the cemetery couldn’t bury him,” said Ford. “And it’s not just one, it’s all of the cemeteries. They say there is a shortage of workers. …
“We are seeing fewer heart attacks and more COVID, fewer deaths from kidney disease and more COVID. The demand will continue to get higher, but the cemeteries are not keeping up.”
Williams said several hundred funeral directors and employees have died from COVID-19.
“This is going to have a more widespread negative impact as the death toll continues to rise. You can’t just hire someone off the street. Embalmers have to be trained and licensed. So, there is a huge vacuum being created with the loss of so many mortuary employees.”
Williams said the association would like to see more young people choose mortuary science as a career.