Please note: the descriptions may disturb or offend some readers.
Los Angeles County, California, United States – As Jason Roa opened the oven door, a breath of warm air filled the small crematorium at White Emerson Mortuary in Whittier. Sometimes, he says, the oven can reach over 1,093 ° C (2,000 ° F). It emitted a dark orange glow and white-hot sparks danced across its background. Drops of sweat ran down the 39-year-old’s forehead.
“When I started the heat was really intense,” Roa told Al Jazeera. “Now I hardly notice it. It’s amazing what you can adapt to. “
On a platform adjacent to the entrance to the oven was a brown cardboard coffin. With a decisive push from Roa, he rolled into the fire and the oven door closed. It takes nearly two hours for a body to make its final transformation from flesh to ash. Then Roa will repeat the process again. And even. And even.
While the United States records more than 536,000 deaths from COVID-19, the last responders – the workers tasked with putting victims to rest and helping families overcome the grief and confusion of death – are being pushed beyond their limits by an unprecedented demand that has taken a heavy toll physical and emotional.
“I have been in this industry for 11 years; I saw a lot of things, ”Roa said. “But when I started here in January, it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The lot was full of additional refrigeration units for all the bodies. The storage unit was so full of corpses that you had to move six or seven to get to the one you needed.
Terribly high demand
In California, the country’s most populous state, more than 55,000 people died from COVID-19, according to state figures.
Between January and March, the state’s death toll more than doubled, with a large percentage of those deaths coming from the besieged city of Los Angeles, where more than 22,000 peopledisproportionately people of color have died from COVID-19.
Alex Matthews is the owner of All Caring Solutions, which operates four crematoriums in Southern California. In the worst days of January, he said even his relatively large operation simply couldn’t keep up with demand.
“One day a crematorium called me and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m exhausted, ”Matthews told Al Jazeera. “At times, we brought in twice as many bodies a day as we could cremate them.”
The incredible demand, along with the limits of the coronavirus pandemic, has forced crematorium owners to do something that would have been unthinkable in their profession just a year ago: tell families who are grappling with death of a loved one that they cannot prevent them from resting.
Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association, said mortuaries need to say “no” at a time when ceremonies that can provide families with a sense of closure are more important than ever.
“Many people cannot be with their loved ones in hospital for their last moments because of the pandemic,” Achermann told Al Jazeera. “People want the privacy of these ceremonies more than ever. Having to reject these people is heartbreaking. But it is not for lack of desire. We are all struggling to stay out of the water. “
Workers say refusing services, such as a meeting for a burial or cremation ceremony – or having to refuse families altogether – can be onerous.
“In January my friend’s stepfather died, I put the phone down and cried because I didn’t know if we could help,” Paul White, managing director of White Emerson Mortuary, told Al Jazeera. “But we had exactly one more seat. It was a little miracle.
Socially distant mourning
Many in the industry say they have taken to their jobs to help others navigate what is, for many, one of the worst times of their lives. But now their ability to provide comfort and closure is limited.
“You can’t kiss people, you can’t put your hand on someone’s shoulder in this time of terrible angst,” Maggie Mcmillan, who works in funeral services at All Caring Solutions, told Al Jazeera. .
“It’s very cold and distant. But the most heartbreaking thing is having to refuse families, to tell someone we can’t help them. This is the first time that we have to do this in our 113 year history. It is emotionally taxing work in normal times. Now it is multiplied by ten, ”she added.
The precautions have also led to an increase in online ceremonies, and some are wondering if these changes will continue after the pandemic.
“A lot of the ceremonies have been moved online,” Dan Flynn, who manages Simply Remembered cremation care in Santa Barbara, told Al Jazeera. “The way we approach funerals may never be the same again. With the Spanish Flu of 1918, death occurred on such a large scale that there were changes in end-of-life ceremonies, such as much shorter sermons, as people had to adapt. In some ways we are seeing this now. “
Last respondents forgotten
The level of demand has given rise to further unprecedented measures. In January, for the first time in its history, the South Coast Air Quality Management District temporarily suspended limits (PDF) on the number of cremations that can take place each month in Southern California to help reduce the backlog of bodies, a move that a mortuary owner called an act of divine intervention.
The order has since been extended several times.
“They saw us struggle and they acted to help us,” White said. “We’re all a little shocked right now, and the one thing we need more than anything else is to know that we’re not alone, that we haven’t been forgotten.
This is a concern shared by Matthews.
“Frontline workers deserve all the praise they get, 100%,” he said. “But every day, the last responders are moving mountains, and they have received very little attention. It was lonely.
“In a way, I think we’re seen as a sinful reminder of the bigger failures of decisions that should, or shouldn’t, be made. Ultimately, our work is the ultimate manifestation of the larger failures to contain the virus, ”Matthews added.
But within the industry, and even among the competition, the collective experience of dealing with the enormous demands of the pandemic has brought the exhausted workers of the profession together in a sense of solidarity and mutual compassion.
“A lot of my friends also work in the industry,” Roa said. “It was tough for all of us. We had to lean on each other. But at the end of the day, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I think it’s important work. It’s satisfying to know that I’m using my skills to serve others.
“There is a quote from William Gladstone:“ Show me how a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical accuracy the tender mercies of its people, ”White said.“ It has been incredibly difficult. But I do believe that the work we do here is sacred.