Rick Noel, co-owner of Walton’s Funerals & Cremations, stands inside the company’s Sierra Chapel at 875 W. Second St. in Reno.
It was late 2020, in-between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when Mountain View Mortuary found itself in a position that would have been unthinkable any other year.
As COVID-19 cases spiked in Washoe County, leading to a wave of virus-related deaths during the holiday season, the Reno funeral home had to “start turning a few families away” as they ran out of space for bodies, said Paul Noell, manager of Mountain View Mortuary in Reno.
“A couple times during about a 2- to 3-week period, we were having to tell families in the middle of the night, ‘I’m sorry, we have no room to be able to bring your loved one into our care,’” Noell told the NNBW. “Those were really difficult conversations to have. Funeral homes are set up that we usually don’t turn families away; we try to do everything we possible can to help the family.
“Letting the families know that we wouldn't be able to help them was something really difficult for us and really tough on them as well.”
INCREASED REVENUES AND STAFF SIZES
Mountain View’s experience being inundated is a microcosm of the many challenges facing the funeral industry in Northern Nevada and beyond.
Nationwide, mortuaries have been continuously overwhelmed as the U.S. nears a grim tally of 475,000 COVID-19 deaths.
More than 27 million people in the country have been infected as of Feb. 11, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, and more than 471,000 deaths reported.
In Washoe County, more than 600 people have died either from the virus or due to complications from it, according to the Washoe County Health District. More than 400 of those deaths have come in the last three months alone (for reference, the county reported its 200th COVID-related death on Nov. 1, 2020).
Noell said Mountain View Mortuary helped about 500 families through the process of honoring their loved one in 2020, a 25% increase compared to 2019. He said that equated to the funeral home’s revenue being up roughly 25% last year as well.
The increase was not solely due to COVID-19 infections, said Noell, who pointed to the lockdowns as contributors to a rise in deaths of people dealing with mental health impacts of the pandemic.
In order to keep up with increase, Mountain View had to hire three more employees, increasing its staff size from six to nine, Noell said.
Still, the Reno-based funeral home can only meet with so many families each day. This, Noell said, has delayed the process for families looking to honor their loved one.
“In a normal timeframe, when somebody passes, we’re able to get the family in that day or the next morning,” Noell said. “Now, we’ve seen it to where we’ve had to push families out two or three days before we can even meet them to start moving forward with services and the paperwork.”
What’s more, funeral homes are limited in the number of cremation services and burial services they have time to perform each day.
“For cremations, pre-pandemic, it was usually four or five business days from the time we meet with the family until we’re able to give them the urn back,” Noell said as an example. “Now, we’re looking at anywhere from a week to two weeks out before we can do that.”
KEEPING UP WITH THE VOLUME
Walton’s Funerals & Cremations, which has 10 funeral homes in Northern Nevada and one in Susanville, California, also experienced its busiest stretch of 2020 in the fourth quarter, said co-owner Rick Noel.
“We saw a 58% increase in the number of deaths from the previous year,” said Noel, noting that’s the biggest quarter increase he’s witnessed in his 38-year career in the funeral industry. “We know COVID definitely impacted it. We felt that all in that last quarter. Sure, we started to see some increase in the third quarter, but that fourth quarter was just insane — it really was.”
Along with coronavirus-related deaths, Noel said Walton’s Funerals also began to see the impact of Baby Boomers — people between ages of 57 and 75 — passing away from issues unrelated to COVID-19.
As a result, Walton’s Funerals had to hire a couple of additional staff to “keep up with the volume and try to help,” Noel said. In all, the company has 60 on staff between its 11 locations spread across the region.
Another challenge that Walton’s has experienced during the pandemic: some manufacturers, slowed by social distancing restrictions and kinks in the supply chain, were unable to produce and deliver urns that were selected by families of cremated loved ones.
“I’ve never experienced that before,” Noel said. “Families would come in and select and urn, and then we would have to come back and say, ‘Look, I’m sorry, it’s not available, because of COVID they’re backordered.’ So, we had to offer some alternatives as replacements for what they originally selected.”
Despite the surge in deaths across greater Reno-Tahoe, Walton’s has not reached a point where it ran out of space. The company did everything from adding extra hours for cremations to staggering employees’ shifts to avoid having to turn a grieving family away, Noel said.
However, because it got close to capacity, Walton’s Funerals & Cremations purchased two large refrigeration units last year. It moved one into its centralized location on Kietzke Lane in Reno and the other into its Carson City facility on North Roop Street.
In all, the additional refrigerators added roughly 75 to 80 more spaces to their capacity, he said.
“By putting in the additional refrigeration, that took a lot of pressure off and gave us that cushion that we needed,” Noel continued. “So, that has proven to be the right decision for us. Even once COVID tapers down and we get back to a little bit of normalcy, we know that the area itself is growing. And as the area grows and Baby Boomers start dying more, we know we’re going to need that additional refrigeration space.”