HUNTINGTON — A flurry of coronavirus-related deaths, combined with other factors, has complicated business for funeral homes, crematories and morgues in the Tri-State, and things don’t appear to be slowing down.
The Boyd County coroner gave a simple response when asked if his morgue had seen an increase in traffic in recent months.
“Our facility has been at or near capacity several times since the pandemic began,” coroner Mark Hammond said.
Their morgue, which holds a maximum of 13 bodies, wasn’t enough, so they began using a mobile cooling unit that can hold an additional six bodies in case of overflow.
“If that’s not enough, we have the ability to rent a freezer truck,” Hammond said. “Luckily, we haven’t reached that point.”
Boyd County isn’t alone. Many funeral homes in the area have experienced an increase in deaths that have backed up funerals, cremations and other services due to the volume of bodies being held at facilities.
Charles Chapman, of Chapman’s Mortuary and Crematory in Huntington, said they’ve had a “full house” at times throughout the pandemic, not in reference to the attendance of a funeral service or otherwise, but in the context of their ability to store bodies.
“Most of the time, they go into a cooling facility until you get all your paperwork completed. Occasionally, they come so quick things can get backed up. We’ve had a full house on a number of occasions,” Chapman said.
At Reger Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Huntington, they’ve also experienced some complications associated with the number of bodies in their facility.
Director Pat Reger said it’s not uncommon to see higher-than-usual death numbers this time of year because of the aging population of the region and the threat of other illnesses like pneumonia.
“I don’t know that there’s a true picture of what the deaths are from. I can tell you by looking at death certificates, the coronavirus isn’t our No. 1 cause of death coming through here,” Reger said.
Some of the backlog issues, he added, are caused by the process of completing a death certificate in West Virginia, alluding to the fact that the state doesn’t have an electronic system so the certificate must be taken directly to each party that is required to sign before any service can be performed.
Fred Kitchen, owner of Henson & Kitchen Mortuary near Barboursville, said they’ve not only seen an increase in business since the beginning of the pandemic, but also a dramatic rise in deaths from August through the end of the calendar year.
“You know what your normal pace is, but it just kept increasing, and we’re still in the same mode right now — busier than normal. That turns into longer hours, days and longer weeks for all of us,” Kitchen said.
Kitchen agreed with Reger that while Henson & Kitchen has dealt with a number of coronavirus deaths, other illnesses, overdoses and other causes have also contributed to the uptick.
On Friday, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources confirmed to The Herald-Dispatch the purchase of four refrigerated containers from Mopec, a supplier of mortuary and necropsy equipment, for use in situations where more bodies than a facility can hold are present.
The temporary and expandable cooling unit sits at ground level and comes with an attachable ramp for easier loading and unloading. They are available in two sizes, 20-foot or 40-foot systems, and can handle 16 to 50 bodies at maximum capacity. The units were shipped Jan. 21 and will be used across the state as needed when received, a DHHR spokesperson said.
Kirk Gossett, Mopec vice president of global sales, said these are the first containers of their type the company has shipped to the Mountain State, but the demand for these units nationwide far outweighs the supply.
“Every phone call we received started with how quickly, how soon or how fast can we get them here,” Gossett said. “We’ve been preaching for decades that people should be prepared, but it’s harder to get them to spend the money on something. It’s like an insurance policy for a once in 50 or 100 years crisis.”
Gossett said there have been more than 100 inquiries from across the United States about the availability of the units. The company recently shipped 16 40-footers to the state of California.
Before the pandemic began, the company had never manufactured the storage containers, but produced a similar product using 53-foot trailers that they sold across the country. The containers, similar to a shipping container used to move food, weren’t introduced until after the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Hospitals aren’t built to hold a large number of bodies, and the funeral homes can’t get to them fast enough, the cemeteries can’t bury them fast enough and it starts this chain reaction,” Gossett said.