At McKenzie Mortuary Services, the phones never stop ringing. As owner Ken McKenzie welcomes families in mourning, workers are busy collecting faxes, calling cemeteries and making orders.
In a back room, embalmed bodies in boxes are stacked on top of each other. The stack is only a few feet shy of the ceiling. The mortuary’s former music room has been converted into storage space for overflow. Out back, a 20-foot refrigerated unit holds more bodies.
It’s the third unit that McKenzie has had to order since the pandemic began.
“After 34 years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” McKenzie said. “We’re seeing multiple families being wiped out.”
He’s handled 138 cases in 15 days. He hasn’t taken any new clients in the past week because of their backlog. People who died in the first week of January are just now being cremated.
Earlier this year, he worked with a family that lost six people in two weeks.
“I’ve never cried in front of a family, but I broke down. I’ve never done that,” he said. “I can compose myself pretty well. There’s like an invisible seal so I don’t get involved, but it was too much.”
McKenzie first opened his mortuary in 1994 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, some mortuaries were hesitant to accept cases who died of AIDS, leaving their families with few options.
“That’s what really motivated me to open my own place and take anyone, no matter how they passed,” he said. A sign hung in a conference room bears the words “Celebrating Life.”
As COVID-19 case numbers and deaths reach staggering heights across the state, the local mortician has to do something he’s never been forced to do before: turn grieving families away.
“Imagine that you have someone in a convalescent home for months. You can’t touch them. You can’t hug them,” he said. “Then they die and you can’t find a place to take them.”
With his mortuary at capacity, he’s had to refer families to the coroner’s office to store bodies until he has the capacity to make funeral arrangements for new clients.
“The approach should be: I ask the family what they want, the date they want, where they want,” he said. “Now we’re having to find out what is available and piece it together.”
McKenzie’s isn’t the only mortuary facing this problem. On Sunday, Southland air-quality regulators lifted the cap on the number of bodies that local crematories could cremate. Crematoriums normally operate under a limit designed to reduce impacts on air quality.
Despite the move, McKenzie said the death rate is higher than the cremation rate he can keep up with.
“All the funeral homes are inundated,” he said. “Even the coroner’s offices are getting full, they have refrigerator trucks. Hospitals are full and they have refrigerated trucks.”
As of Jan. 15, more than 2,700 bodies were being stored at hospitals and the coroner’s office. Earlier this month, California National Guardsmen arrived in Los Angeles County to help the coroner process deaths.
The COVID-19 death toll crossed the 14,000 mark in LA County on Tuesday.
Health officials have warned in recent weeks that despite a leveling-off of hospital admissions, the numbers could rapidly climb again when people infected over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays begin to get sick enough to require medical care.
With at least 10% of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization, higher case numbers will translate into higher hospitalization numbers, and ultimately, more deaths.
Though the virus is known to have grave impacts on elderly and at-risk populations, McKenzie made sure to point out that he has organized funerals for cases across all age levels.
McKenzie urged residents to wear their masks and adhere to state and local health guidelines.
“The truth is in the pudding. Numbers don’t lie. If people are dying, and they’re in their 30s, what more do we need to hear?” he said. “They’re not coming home.”