Pandemic: LA County cemetery, largest in North America, struggles with backlog of burials

The Whittier cemetery covers 2,500 acres but is still scrambling to handle the wave of burials caused by the pandemic.
WHITTIER, Calif. (KABC) -- The surge of COVID-19 deaths in Los Angeles County has created a backlog of burials at the largest cemetery in North America.

Officials at Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary say their burial process, which usually takes five to seven days after a death, is now stretching to more than a month.

"The whole system is under stress at the moment so everything is just taking longer than normal," explained Rose Hills president Patrick Monroe. "After the Thanksgiving holiday we began to see our daily call volume nearly double."

The Whittier cemetery covers 2,500 acres but is still scrambling to handle the wave of burials caused by the pandemic.

One family caught up in the pandemic's wave of heartache: the Lopez Marquez family from South Gate. Their father, Manuel Lopez Marquez, died from COVID-19 last week, and the family is learning they may not be able to have his services and burial for another month and a half.

"When we called the cemetery, we were 102 on the waiting line and it took about six to seven hours to get through to the mortuary," Elvira Marquez said.

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Many patients who initially experienced milder COVID-19 symptoms are now showing up at the doctor's office months later with debilitating problems. They're being called "long-haulers."

Rose Hills officials say they are offering expedited burials, but that most families have been willing to wait for standard services. In the meantime, the cemetery has ramped up cold storage facilities for holding the backlog of bodies.

"We were on this a few months ago, expecting a potential surge," said Monroe. "And so far, we've been able to keep up with those demands."

But in many cases the wait for burial services is compounded by the COVID-19 protocols in place leading up to a death. Rose Hills officials say many victims had already been separated from their families for weeks, even months.

"The first time they're seeing them is at a funeral service, and that brings grief in itself," said Shannon Kolbjornsen, funeral services manager at Rose Hills. "It just adds extra burden, extra stress, extra emotional toll on these families."

Monroe says the Rose Hills chapel is closed because of the pandemic and all services are held outdoors. Safety and compassion are at the top of his list.

"We're trying to help families heal, and I think that's what's keeping us going," Monroe said.

A GoFundMe page has been created to help cover Manuel Lopez Marquez's funeral expenses.
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