LA County families face funeral arrangement delays due to overwhelmed morgues, funeral homes

Families in LA County are facing delays to plan funeral arrangements for deceased loved ones due to the influx of COVID-19 deaths and unrelated deaths that are overwhelming morgues and funeral homes.

As of January 15, more than 2,700 bodies were stored in hospitals and the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.

RELATED: Coroner, National Guard to help with COVID-19 bodies as death toll rises

In preparation for the pandemic, the coroner's office installed refrigerated storage units in April of 2020. During normal operations, the coroner can store up to 500 bodies, and with the additional units, it can further hold 1,500 for a total of 2,000.

Anita Sheers lost her husband of 17 years, Khadlif Sheers, 42, to COVID-19 on Tuesday. He was a father to a 23-year-old woman, and an 11-year-old boy. He worked as a private chef and owned his own business, Urban Backpack Chef. 

Anita described Khadlif as a "pillar" in their family.

"We still haven't wrapped our heads around it. It doesn't make sense. I go through my waves of devastation and sadness and pain, but I'm not being in any one place at one time. I'm just waving through it all," said Sheers.

Sheers first tested positive for COVID-19 on January 5, and Khadlif tested positive five days later. Both isolated themselves at a hotel away from their kids to recover. Anita is now testing negative, but her husband did not survive. She said Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital set up an area in the corner of their hospital to give them some alone time with Khadlif though the hospitals are overwhelmed.

"No one's ever been in this place before with COVID and all so nothing is normal right now. There are so many people passing away from COVID-related situations where morgues are backed up. They don't have the capacity to accept any more of these bodies," she said.

RELATED: Stay up to date on all coronavirus-related information

Sheers said she has had to mentally and emotionally prepare herself because she will not be able to lay her husband to rest for weeks.

"It's devastating because you're already in shock, pained, sad, devastated that you are now looking at the loss and then imagine how more blown back you are when someone says so 'if you are interested in services of any kind, I have to be honest with you, I need you to be flexible," she said.

Sheers is unsure when she will be able to plan arrangements.

"A lot of places are saying they don't even have the capacity to maybe host me in that fashion until sometime in March. March, and it's January right now," she said.

Sheers said she is relying on her support system to help get through the difficult time and is asking for prayers.

"I do have my many low points so I love when people are praying for me. I love when people are sending me their love because I feel it and it gets me through these moments," she said.

With the number of people dying in Los Angeles County, some cemeteries are turning people away.

"A lot of mortuaries and cemeteries are really impacted by this, and are stretched thin to the point where some are not able to accept any more loved ones into their care but that's not the case with us," said Antoinette Lou, the Director of Community Relations and Communications for Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary in Whittier.

Rose Hills is the largest cemetery in the nation, and even it is struggling to keep up with the influx of Covid deaths.

"There are some delays in getting an appointment, in getting service time so we're asking our families, please, we're doing our very best. We're working as hard as we can but we're not here to cut corners," she said.

Lou said they are now hiring more staff.

"Over the past month or so going back to December, we've seen an increase by 200 percent so that's the number of families that we're having to serve. It's putting a strain not only on us but a lot of our vendors that work with us. They're stretched thin. It's almost like a domino effect," she said.  

Lou said there is a delay in arrangements.

"Arrangements, for example, are probably three to four weeks out, and these are arrangements to plan for these funeral services and then the funeral service is probably another week to a couple of weeks out," she said.

Before the pandemic, it only took one to two weeks to set funeral arrangements and have the service.

"Hearing from employees and associates that have worked at Rose Hills or worked in the funeral or mortuary industry for decades, they have never seen anything like this. This is the first of its kind and we're working through it," she said.

Lou said their cemetery is also working on storage space.

"We have brought in mobile refrigeration and we are working with our teams to make sure that these spaces are dignified spaces," she said.

The Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner sent a statement to FOX 11:

"Until recently, after a person died from COVID-19 at the hospital, their body would be kept at the hospital morgue. With the increase in deaths, body storage at the hospital morgues has been minimal. Because of that, the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner (DMEC) has been asked to help.

In preparation for the pandemic, the DMEC installed refrigerated storage units at the beginning of April 2020. During normal operations, DMEC can store up to 500 bodies. With the additions, we can further hold 1500 bodies for a total of 2000.

The department has sufficient storage for current needs; however, the department is expanding capacity to meet potential future demands.  

As of today, we have about 815 of our own DMEC cases (deaths we investigate) and about 310 COVID-19 hospital storage cases (deaths we do not investigate).

Furthermore, as of Jan. 4, the California National Guard has been assisting our staff with body transportation and storage."

The Sheers family has a "Caring Bridge" crowdfunding site to help with their loss.

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