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Valley funeral homes try to provide closure despite changing circumstances

Posted at 10:49 PM, Apr 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-25 10:23:11-04

PHOENIX — So far, 249 Arizonans have died due to COVID-19.
Nearly all of them have passed away in near isolation, unable to be surrounded by family and friends. But Valley funeral homes are trying to care for the dead and provide closure for loved ones in the time of coronavirus.

At mortuaries, there are no longer lines of mourners, long hugs, moving services, or tissues being exchanged - just social distancing signs and hand sanitizer.

"That’s how you get your closure, is at the funeral. And we’re not able to have them right now," said Megan Millage, Manager of Shadow Mountains Mortuary in North Phoenix.

Like so many businesses, operations have completely changed.

"[We're] doing virtual arrangements. Having services Facebook live-streamed," said Millage. "A lot of families are pushing services. At first, it would be a few weeks and then it would be a couple of months. And now it’s just completely on hold."

"Some people will even go with cremation instead of a burial," said Genelle Gamboa, who manages Legacy Funeral Home, Rose Chapel, in Mesa.

Gamboa says there has not been a noticeable influx in the number of people they are receiving. But the level of anxiety internally has risen.

"My issue is not knowing what they passed from," said Gamboa.

Like many so many mortuaries, Legacy is handling COVID-19 services. Gamboa estimates they have had 20 to 25 over the company's three valley locations.

While some are confirmed cases, other deaths have unknown causes but point to coronavirus.

"The medical examiner was here the other day doing a swab, and the person died in a facility," said Gamboa. "So I don’t know if it’s getting reported."

Arizona's lack of testing has led to increased risks for staff.

"We are having associates going to hospitals, morgues, nursing homes, hospice facilities, even private residences," said Millage. "
"It’s hard to do and it’s scary to not know if we’re going to be able to have all the supplies that we need into the future into the next week or two," she said.

PPE, which is being funneled to healthcare workers and first responders, has been nearly impossible for funeral homes to obtain.

"We are very low. We actually spent a lot of time looking online yesterday looking for coveralls," said Gamboa.

"We’re just not able to get everything we need," said Millage.

Families are in the same boat -- unable to get pastors to hold the services.

"It’s very hard for a pastor who wants to comfort families and be there for families to say, I can’t show up because you’re going to have 50 or 60 people there," said Pastor Andre Miller with New Beginnings Christian Church in Mesa.

Miller said he has had to turn some funerals down in order to practice safety for himself and his elderly mother.

He has watched as friends have had to cope with a devastating loss during this unprecedented time.

"They are totally traumatized by the experience. Not only because they weren’t able to be with their family members as they transition, but then there’s this cloudiness or murkiness the situation surrounding their death," he said.

This pandemic is taking its toll on everyone. But for those who've lost a loved one to coronavirus, the new non-traditional funeral only adds to the agony of not being able to say goodbye at a bedside.

"I think that’s really hard on families who were not able to be with their loved one," said Millage.

Dignity Memorial, which runs Shadow Mountain, is a nationwide company.
Millage said valley employees are stepping up to help the areas hit the hardest. Already three employees have gone to New York City, and three more plan to follow in the coming weeks to help deal with the staggering death toll.