PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Checking the pulse of local businesses during the pandemic, the I-Team found an industry — funeral homes — facing a new challenge as COVID-19-related deaths continue to climb.
Today, funeral homes are struggling to find space to store remains as the delays for cremation grow longer and COVID deaths mount.
At Curlew Hills Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor, walking through the front door to the office provides a reminder that the pandemic is not a problem of the past. The funeral home and cemetery require everyone to have their temperature taken before they go any further.
This time last year, many funeral homes were experiencing at least a two-week backlog for cremations, delaying a sense of closure for loved ones. This was also at a time many families had to hold virtual ceremonies because of social distancing limitations/restrictions.
“It’s back to what it was before COVID," Curlew Hills Memory Gardens President and CEO Keenan Knopke said of in-person funerals. "Except the number of deaths are going up."
“I’m not trying to do a commercial for vaccinations, but at the same time, I’m standing here and can tell you, you need to be vaccinated because it works," said Knopke, who served as the Vice-Chairman of the Board of Funeral Cemetery and Consumer Services of Florida. “Get vaccinated. It may save your life."
COVID-19 deaths he is seeing are "way up," he said, from what they saw working with families last year.
“Now, we’re seeing people that are younger. And when I say younger, 50-55 and below that before felt they were immune, they didn’t get vaccinated... that they’re tough enough battle through it," Knopke said. "I can tell you from experience standing here, that’s not the case,"
Knopke is in the business of comforting clients. He also has to prepare for the hard realities.
He needs space to store remains.
Last year, Knopke rented two extra coolers to store remains in accordance with state law.
“They’re somebody’s loved one. You take care of them like they’re yours. And that’s what people in our business do," Knopke said.
Without the added space, he explained Curlew Hills Memory Gardens would have had no choice but to turn families away.
“I was trying to get a third one, just to make sure I had capacity," Knopke said of the position he's now in.
But the company he rents from?
"They have no more coolers.”
Knopke confirmed the situation is worse now than it was a year ago.
“A week ago I was concerned. Let’s put it that way. Very concerned," Knopke said of space.
In Hillsborough, near the start of the pandemic, the county brought in refrigerated containers. So far, the Medical Examiner's office has not had to use them.
Knopke told the I-Team state regulators are keeping in contact with medical examiners and funeral homes.
“They poll us just about every week to 10 days," he said. “They’re trying to keep a running list of availability so in case somebody runs out or an area runs out, they can help.”
That may mean transferring remains to another county, for the time being, he explained.
“Orlando in the past couple of weeks has been virtually at capacity," Knopke said.
When asked if he's ever seen the need for this type of coordination, Knopke told the I-Team, "No. Not to my knowledge. And I've done this for 50 years."
The Florida Department of Financial Services, which oversees the Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services, said it's directing entities encountering refrigeration issues to their local health department and/or the state's Division of Emergency Management for assistance.
Here's where local hospitals stand:
"With the spike of seriously ill patients in our hospitals, and the current strain and throughput issues with local funeral homes, it's become necessary that we put resources in place to provide additional morgue capacity at AdventHealth Tampa."
“BayCare has been proactive in its preparation for this surge of COVID-19 patients. In addition to making sure we have an adequate stock of personal protective equipment, ventilators and medications, early in the pandemic we secured additional refrigeration to expand morgue capacity. This process is part of our emergency preparedness plan to ensure that we can maintain our operational needs in any number of possible scenarios. Due to the recent surge of COVID-19 patients and related deaths, we are utilizing some of this space while working with several funeral homes as families make arrangements for their loved ones.”
Tampa General Hospital
Tampa General Hospital tells the I-Team it has not brought in and additional coolers for remains.
Last year, there was also a spike in the number of families struggling to cover the cost of cremation, with so many out of work due to the pandemic.
Hillsborough County said the number of people seeking county assistance there remains high but is lower than last year.
Hillsborough County Indigent Cremations
- January - August 2020: 485
- January - August 2021: 429
In April, the federal government began offering financial assistance for COVID-19-related funeral expenses.
As of Sept. 13, FEMA has reimbursed 9,132 Floridians, coming out to $51,839,867 so far.
- FEMA begins accepting applications to reimburse Americans for COVID-related funeral expenses
- FEMA receives 7,500+ COVID-19 funeral assistance applications from Florida
At this time, there is no deadline to apply for FEMA funeral assistance.
FEMA | Funeral Assistance FAQ