MESA, AZ — As vaccinations rise and fewer people contract, and die from, COVID-19, funeral homes will get a much-needed break.
Since the pandemic began, mortuaries and funeral homes have been inundated with grieving families who unexpectedly lost a loved one.
"People are coming in here and saying, 'I was just talking to my sister last week and now she’s gone,'" said Sissy Fernandez, with Rose Chapel Funeral Home. "A lot of people weren’t able to say goodbye when the person was still alive."
Funeral homes are not just dealing with devastated relatives. They have also found themselves having to negotiate with foreign consulates.
Sissy, and her team at Rose Chapel, spent weeks trying to get a Valley grandmother's body back to Guatemala.
It was one of Amalia Juarez's final wishes.
"[She] always said if she passed away in this country to please send her body back," said Anna Migia, Juarez's granddaughter.
The 75-year-old moved to Arizona for family.
"She was always very giving, and that's something she passed down to us," said Migia.
Juarez passed away from COVID-19 just eight days after she was checked into a hospital in mid-January.
"She passed on January 21st and we were just able to have her cremated today, March 12," said Migia. "We wanted to send her body back to Guatemala, but because her death certificate said COVID, it became an issue."
"[Guatemala will not accept anybody that has a COVID diagnosis on the death certificate," said Fernandez "I had her here for almost two months, waiting for them to change their laws over there, so we could send her."
Unfortunately, despite the family's strong desire to not cremate they were left with no other options.
"It’s been hard, and it’s not just his family. A lot of families from Central America, we haven’t been able to send back down," said Fernandez. "Earlier in the pandemic, it was taking a month to get a relative back to Mexico."
The past 12 months have been "insane."
"We’ve been swamped. Working non-stop," said Jenelle Gamboa, the funeral home's manager.
"Our [storage] capacity is 175...and it stayed full the whole summer," said Fernandez.
While the number of deaths is starting to subside, the impact is still there.
"I’ve had COVID twice," said Fernandez. "I still can’t smell or taste. And this happened in October.
"I think everyone in the company has had it," said Gamboa.
"We’ve had a few deaths, one director passed away," said Fernandez.
Funeral home employees are now finally eligible for the vaccine in Maricopa County. They will need it as families continue to come through their doors.
"The funeral home is slower than we have been," said Gamboa. "But we always worry about another wave."