By Sam Voas, wranglernews.com
The COVID-19 pandemic, in general, has been bad for small business. In the case of Dominic Kepner, that does not apply.
Kepner is a funeral director at Bueler Mortuary in downtown Chandler. He says that the pandemic created the busiest period in its history. In an average month, Kepner says, Bueler, founded in 1952, serves about 30 clients. Forty is a busy month. In January, the number was nearly 100, more than half of them COVID related.
“I’ve been doing this 25, 26 years and December, January, February are probably the worst months there have ever been in my career,” said Kepner, 44.
During those months, the Bueler staff “pretty much lived at the funeral home,” he said.
The wave of COVID deaths created unprecedented challenges for Bueler’s three-person staff. Among them was the issue of space.
“We were pretty maxed out to the point where I don’t think we could have handled another call, storage-wise, space-wise,” Kepner said.
Bodies awaiting cremation are stored in special containers, according to Kepner. Ordinarily, these containers are placed on rolling platforms until they are transported to the crematory. Amid the raging pandemic, it was not long before all of the platforms were in use. As bodies continued to arrive en masse, Kepner and his team had to get creative. They began storing cremation containers on top of five-gallon buckets.
“You know, just out of respect, I didn’t want to place the cremation container on the ground,” Kepner said.
He notes that other mortuaries faced the same problem.
“I know other places were using saw horses,” he said.
Bueler Mortuary’s storage problem was compounded by some hospitals’ slower-than-usual processing of death certificates, Kepner said. Legally, doctors have 72 hours to deliver a signed death certificate. At the height of the pandemic, as hospitals experienced a dramatic increase in patients, doctors were taking as long as a week to process the required paperwork.
Funeral homes like Bueler cannot proceed with a cremation, or any funeral services, Kepner said, until they receive a signed death certificate for the deceased. The mortuary is forced to store the body until the documents are received.
While hospital delays left Kepner in a professional predicament, he points out that mortuaries were not the only victims of the death-certificate logjam.
“If they don’t do their part, the families are the ones who are paying the consequences because they can’t have a service or have cremation take place until the doctor signs that document,” he said.
Even after receiving delayed death certificates, Bueler Mortuary faced yet another impediment.
“The crematory got backed up. They were far behind on cremations because they got bombarded, as well,” Kepner said.
Bueler Mortuary does not have a crematory of its own. It contracts to Paradise Memorial Crematory, which is run by Scottsdale-based Messinger Mortuaries.
According to Messinger CEO Sabrina Messinger, Paradise is among the largest crematories in Arizona. It is contracted to perform cremations for many Valley funeral homes. The Paradise Memorial staff worked seven days a week to keep up with COVID deaths, she said.
After an overwhelming winter, things have calmed down at Bueler, Kepner noted. In fact, March was a relatively slow month, he said.
“I don’t think any of our cases this month have been COVID,” Kepner said.
As Bueler Mortuary returns to business that’s more routine in volume, Kepner looks back on the winter with what seems a surreal recall.
“It was challenging, you know,” Kepner said. “Sometimes, I wonder how we got through it.”