LA’s cemetery workers, with backlog of bodies, try to honor each COVID death

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MaryAnn McAdams is the director of All Souls Catholic Cemetery in Long Beach. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb/KCRW.

LA County passed a grim milestone on Tuesday. The public health department announced 20,000 people have died from COVID-19. Those deaths have created a backlog of work at mortuaries and cemeteries throughout the region.

“Currently, I'm serving almost 300 people,” says MaryAnn McAdams, the director of All Souls Catholic Cemetery in Long Beach. Before the pandemic, this cemetery helped about 75 clients at a time bury or cremate their loved ones. “We're dubbed the last responders.”

“I don't know how we do it, to be quite honest,” she says. “We're having the remains held here because of permitting issues. We can't get information from the health department. The churches have been closed. We're limited to places where we can actually hold the service. There are a lot of obstacles.”

At Rose Hills in Whittier, one of the largest cemeteries in the country, two dozen large freezers were delivered to keep bodies cool as loved ones waited to bury them. 

Miguel Soto, who works on a dig team at Rose Hills, says some of the bodies have been sitting there for more than a month. 

He acknowledges the emotional toll it’s taking on the families and himself: “I'm fatigued. I'm stressed out. I think we broke a record of 72 services in one day. Our equipment is breaking down because they are not used to this volume of work.” 

For the foreseeable future, his work will continue at this rate. But there is light on the horizon. About 2,000 people are currently hospitalized in LA due to COVID-19, about the same number of people hospitalized prior to this winter’s surge.