Updated January 8, 2021 - 4:01 pm
In the parking lot of the Las Vegas funeral home now sits a white shipping container. The unit is nondescript and unassuming, but inside lie bodies awaiting burial or cremation.
Many of them are victims of COVID-19.
Storing the dead in shipping containers is a grim reality that less than a year ago would have seemed unimaginable, inhumane even, to funeral directors Laura Sussman and Wendy Kraft. Yet relief washed over the married couple when the container, kept at a cool 38 degrees internally, arrived about two weeks ago outside their small, family-owned funeral home, Kraft-Sussman Funeral and Cremation Services.
By then, the worst case scenario, what Sussman and Kraft had been bracing for since the pandemic exploded in March, had seemingly happened overnight.
“Everything is getting maxed out,” Sussman told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Tuesday. “It’s scary.”
In recent weeks, a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths has overwhelmed many of Southern Nevada’s mortuaries, according to the Nevada State Funeral Board, delaying services and in turn extending the grieving process for families.
Jennifer Kandt, the board’s executive director, said that during a recent phone call with funeral directors and representatives of several Southern Nevada agencies, including the Health District and the Clark County coroner’s office, mortuary directors had “sounded the alarm.”
“They’re saying to us, ‘We’re concerned about capacity if we continue to receive bodies at this pace. We’re worried we’ll run out of room,’” Kandt said.
Strain on the system
Nevada set records for coronavirus deaths in December and continued to topple record numbers in the first week of 2021, which saw its highest one-day record of 60 deaths on Wednesday before reaching a sobering milestone three days later.
Between Jan. 3 and Saturday, state officials reported 299 deaths — the most in a single week since the beginning of the pandemic. The previous record-high of 231 fatalities occured between Dec. 13 and Dec. 19.
Caleb Cage, Nevada’s COVID-19 response director, previously said that “Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays in late December and early January may lead to expected surges and could overlap, resulting in a surge on top of a surge.”
Across the valley, funeral homes large and small are feeling the strain on the system caused by the influx in cases.
“The end of December has really proven to be overwhelming,” said Sheila Winn, director of Clark County Funeral Services, a family-owned mortuary in the Historic Westside that typically provides services to 15 families during any given month.
In December, that number doubled.
“Granted, we are a small facility, but to double your intake is phenomenal,” Winn said. “The only thing I can attribute that to is the virus and additional deaths caused by the virus.”
In response to the growing concerns, the coroner’s office has loaned at least six refrigerated units to four funeral homes across the Las Vegas Valley, a move designed to increase capacity and decrease delays. Two more units that could be deployed “at any time” are on reserve, according to the coroner’s office.
Sussman and Kraft received one unit, which doubled their capacity to 30 unembalmed bodies. Davis Funeral Homes, which has two locations in the valley, received three, according to general manager Philip Smith. The large refrigerated units could be seen on Tuesday outside the company’s Eastern Avenue location secured by fencing.
Smith told the Review-Journal that he and his staff have seen a 58 percent increase in cases compared with their December 2019 caseload.
“It’s a situation that I can’t predict what will happen two weeks from now,” Smith said.
The caseload and staff size of most funeral homes in the valley would pale in comparison with those of Palm Mortuary, which has seven locations. Even so, the largest funeral home service in the valley is feeling the impact of the surge in cases.
Celena Dilullo, the company’s president, said in an email Friday: “I won’t be able to comment anymore because I need to serve the community along with my team. Many lives to celebrate and remember right now, which takes all of us to serve.”
‘It stays with you’
The surge hit the Sussman-Kraft funeral home particularly hard.
On average, each month, the family-owned mortuary receives about 30 bodies. But that more than doubled to 70 in December, and if the surge in deaths continues or worsens, the funeral home would be on pace to receive about a hundred bodies by the end of January.
The mere thought of the funeral home’s seven-person team servicing that many families in a month worries Sussman.
Standing outside her funeral home Tuesday near the shipping container, which can hold 15 bodies, Sussman said, “It would be nonstop. I can’t keep going not sleeping this long, but at the same time I want to do right by the families who choose us.”
Sussman hasn’t had a day off in weeks.
“I work. I go home. I eat dinner. I go to sleep. I wake up and do it again,” Sussman said, her voice stifled by an N-95 mask and face shield. “I am feeling the stress, which I haven’t felt like this in a long time.”
Still, Sussman and Kraft, who have been married since 2015, have not lost passion for their line of work, and many of the families they have worked with in the past are now their close friends.
“We’ve had some really, really difficult, painful cases,” Kraft said. “We …”
Choked up, Kraft paused to collect herself.
“We can’t just compartmentalize,” she continued. “It stays with you.”
The couple’s funeral home has been open for 13 years, and in that time, they have never turned a family away — not for capacity issues or even financial reasons. The thought of closing their doors on a family is unimaginable.
They hope it won’t become another new grim reality in the coming weeks and months.