Florida funeral home workers try to keep up with the dying

Author: Khristopher J. Brooks / CBS
Published: Updated:
COVID-19 continues to spread across Southwest Florida. (CREDIT: WINK News)

Richard Prindiville, director of Highland Funeral Home in Apopka, is used to working long days in what is a notoriously grueling profession. But nothing in his more than two decades in the business has prepared him for the torrent of death caused by the latest COVID-19 wave in the state.

“There’s been days I’ve come home and I’m exhausted and I’m talking to my daughter and I’m falling asleep as I’m talking to her,” he told CBS MoneyWatch. “Every day is funerals and funerals and funerals.”

Prindiville, 48, routinely works 14-hour days booking funerals, meeting with grieving families, transporting bodies and overseeing services, not to mention managing his staff and handling the myriad other duties small businesses must perform. And with hundreds of Floridians succumbing to the disease, the task of disposing the dead with dignity falls upon pallbearers, morticians and other so-called last responders like Prindiville.

In the last week of August, Florida hospitals averaged 279 deaths per day, up from 52 in July, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The spike in fatalities, although not yet definitively linked to the coronavirus, is strongly suspected to stem from the ongoing surge in cases caused by the Delta variant. Overall, the state has reported a total over 44,000 coronavirus deaths over the course of the pandemic, according to a New York Times tracker.

COVID-19 has claimed so many lives in Florida that funeral directors said there aren’t enough hours in the day to schedule all the services, a local TV station reported.

Florida funeral home employees are working just as hard now as they were last year during the height of the pandemic, said John Ricco, executive director of the Florida Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. Compounding the challenge is a shortage of funeral workers that predates the public health crisis. Employees are stretched thin and exhausted, he said.

“They’re working around the clock right now to make sure they’re compassionately serving the grieving families,” Ricco told CBS MoneyWatch.

Funeral homes across the U.S. saw a sharp rise in demand for their services in 2020. The upsurge forced many funeral homes to cremate bodies instead of hosting casket burials, a quicker service amid the rising death toll.

“During the pandemic, there were firms that were doing their yearly call volume in three months,” Dutch Nie of the National Funeral Directors Association told CBS MoneyWatch earlier this year. “It’s been all hands on deck and it’s been overwhelming.”

Demand leveled off at some funeral homes after millions of Americans started getting vaccinated against COVID-19 last fall. But after a summer lull, deaths have risen as of late, particularly in states with many unvaccinated residents, such as Florida, Mississippi and Texas.

“What makes it difficult for us nowadays is just explaining to family members that we cannot have — and we’ll have to hold off having — a funeral,” Prindiville said. “In an hour, I could have six death calls and I’m back to figuring out how to piece stuff together.”

Along with the crushing work load, funeral home workers in Florida also report other challenges, including running low on space to store bodies before cremation or burial. The West Side Crematory in Winter Garden, Florida, is so inundated that bodies are stacked to the ceiling, one TV station reported.

Ricco said some larger funeral homes are using refrigerator space at their other locations, while others are borrowing space from local hospitals. In turn, hospitals are starting to run out of space as well.

Maria Rosales, who runs an Orlando-area company that picks up bodies from hospitals and delivers them to funeral homes or crematoriums, said she has seen an increase in bodies in the past two weeks. There are so many bodies that hospitals “have to rent out big trucks for extra storage spaces.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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