ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — As the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise, so does the number of families served by funeral homes. Some Roanoke Valley funeral homes say they’re overextended, even worse than in 2020.
“So far this month in January, we have already gotten close to 100 death calls, 100 deaths .and that is far above average and I just don’t know when it’s going to end,” said Sammy G. Oakey III, president of Oakey’s Funeral Service and Crematory, which has five chapels around the Roanoke Valley.
Business is busier than ever. According to Oakey, the funeral home received more death calls in 2021 than in 2020.
“I’ve been here 45 years and I’ve not seen anything like it,” said Oakey. “I’ve heard my grandfather talk about the flu epidemic of 1919, 1920, and that was bad. He was a kid then, and he told me about his father was working here and his father worked, like, three or six months without a day off.”
While not all of those calls are COVID-related, Oakey says most of them are.
“There’s not a day that goes by in the past couple of months I don’t come in in the morning and see that we have picked up a COVID positive case overnight,” Oakey said. “Probably one every 24 hours, maybe.”
“It’s really like nothing the funeral industry has ever seen before,” said Micahel Hamlar, president of Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home in Roanoke.
According to Hamlar, he’s seeing the same trend as Oakey.
“Just in the last few months, our COVID deaths here at the funeral home have increased dramatically,” said Hamlar.
Some funeral homes, like Lotz Funeral Home and Crematory and Oakey’s, say they’ve come close to capacity.
“Right now we’re okay but we’ve had several situations where we were very concerned about what we would do if we had a full cooler,” Oakey said.
If it ever came to that, Oakey says he would either work with other local funeral homes or make the tough decision to turn families away.
However, the pandemic is also taking a toll on those working in funeral homes.
“We’re human too, we’re flesh, it hurts, and we’re burnt out like everybody else,” said Hamlar. “And just to be completely honest, I mean we were working 20 hour days.”
Hamlar — who is also president of the Virginia Mortician’s Association — says many people across the Commonwealth have left the business. In addition, 70 of his colleagues in the association have actually died from the coronavirus.
“We’ve had difficulty at times finding licensed funeral directors and embalmers to come to work. Used to be, it was no problem, but we’re seeing a reluctance of people going into this profession,” said Oakey.
Just like most industries across the country, the pandemic is affecting how funeral workers do business.
“We’ve had to actually start limiting the number of funerals we do a day,” Oakey said. “We can’t do 10 funerals in a day.”
While funeral homes are receiving more business than ever, they are also dealing with more deaths and fewer resources. In short, the funeral business is not immune to the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.