Burial services are currently backtracked due to a surge on COVID-19 deaths during the holiday season. (Roberto Romero / Daily Titan)

Grieving families have to delay memorial services as they are placed on month-long waiting lists while the repercussions of the COVID-19 holiday surge continue to be felt.

Mary Funk, the administrative manager for the Orange County Cemetery District, said that in order to accommodate more families, they have had to adjust how often they do burials.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined that we would see a day that when I’d have to tell a grieving family that ‘I am so sorry you have to wait over a month before we can bury your loved one’ and that has got to be the impact of COVID,” Funk said.

The cemeteries operated by the district went from doing three burials a day to four. Additionally, in order to provide its services, the district began performing burials on days it normally would not.

“Instead of having no burials on Sunday, we are now doing burials on Sunday and even on holidays. But still, we can only do so many burials in a day,” Funk said.

Despite the district’s efforts to help families find closure, the amount of burials that can be performed in one day is limited. That means many families are placed on a month-long waiting list until they can be accommodated and have their loved one buried.

The inability to perform services within the time frame that families request presents an additional layer of difficulty and is the district’s biggest challenge, Funk said.

Tim Deutsche, the district’s general manager, said families that want the services arranged sooner than the district can accommodate are often turned down or referred to other businesses.

“We have a limited amount of inventory at our one loan cemetery, for full casket space at our Lake Forest El Toro memorial cemetery. We have roughly 4,200 spaces remaining. The other two cemeteries I mentioned, Santa Ana and Anaheim, we no longer have any full casket space available for sale to new families that need it,” Deutsche said.

People like Bernice Lizarraga, who had lost her mother to COVID-19, had to search relentlessly for a place to bury their loved ones.

“We had to go to four places,” Lizarraga said.

Lizarraga said she spent two days trying to find a mortuary that could provide the services she needed on the date she requested and was told by all of them that they had a waiting list.

“They were booked already and all of them had like a three month waiting list. We wanted something quicker than that because we were trying to get my mother out of the hospital,” Lizarraga said.

All the mortuaries she contacted told her to leave her name and number, and someone would contact her when space became available, she said. But no one ever did, Lizarraga said.

It wasn’t until Lizarraga reached out to her sister-in-law, who knew the manager at a funeral home, that she was able to find the burial services within her desired time frame.

“Because of her, we were able to have a faster process for my mom. If it hadn't been for her, we would have had to wait more time than we did. That was a big help,” Lizarraga said.

Jeff Kalabolas, who owns and operates an answering service that caters exclusively to mortuaries in California, said that his business has seen gradual ups and downs over the last year. However, that all changed just before Christmas Eve, when his business started receiving a greater volume of calls.

“Christmas Eve was the light switch. Up until then, we were seeing anywhere from 5% to 10% busier than normal at most,” Kalabolas said.

His company of eight employees is used to receiving a call volume of anywhere between 600to 800 calls daily. Now, his company is averaging nearly 2,000 a day, nearly three times the company’s average call volume before the pandemic.

The increase in call volume has forced him and his employees to work longer hours than usual to meet business demands, Kalabolas said.

“The next five days, I went from working an eight-hour shift, five days a week, to working a 12-hour shift, seven days a week,” Kalabolas said. “I have another partner in the company who is doing the same thing, working 11 at night to 8:30 in the morning, seven days a week ever since Christmas Eve”.

Kalabolas, who has worked in the industry for about 17 years, said that the number of deaths in Riverside County goes up every year, reaching up to 7,000 to 8,000 deaths early on in his career.

He said in 2021 so far, Riverside County and surrounding counties in Southern California have hit record highs.

“San Bernardino, Riverside, LA, Orange County are all showing very similar numbers, somewhere between 2,300 and 2,800 cases in the month of January,” Kalabolas said.

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