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Nevada Experiences Record Breaking Number Of Funerals

As thousands of people in Nevada died from COVID-19 over the past year, funeral homes, crematoriums, and cemeteries in Nevada experienced record-breaking numbers of interments and cremations.

All of that extra work took a toll on the people who work in the industry.

"It was challenging," said Laura Sussman, funeral director for Kraft-Sussman Funeral and Cremation Services, "My staff was great, but we had to work extra hours obviously. We were meeting with families by Zoom mostly or phone calls."

She said most families were opting for cremation, but since they weren't allowed to visit their loved one in the hospital, Sussman and her staff tried to give them as much time as possible to be with their loved one's body at the funeral home.

"We have a family room where we would prepare their loved ones so they could see them and spend some time with them before their final arrangements were complete," Sussman said.

Sussman and her team were working 24 hours, seven days a week during the surge in cases from December of last year through to the end of February this year.

They had to take special precautions like wearing personal protective equipment when picking up the body of someone who died of COVID-19. They would also put a mask on the deceased person's face. 

They tried to keep the people who died of COVID separated from people who had died of other causes, but during the peak in January, they couldn't do that anymore.

For people who have dedicated their lives to helping families grieve, Sussman said the restrictions on gathering capacity made it extremely difficult.

"I think we all realized the stress that the family had in being apart from their loved one and also the fact that families couldn't get together and grieve together," she said.

Sussman and her staff tried to set up virtual funeral services for people to connect that way.

"Trying to provide that kind of support because if you can't be there in person the next best thing I think is seeing a kind, supportive face," she said.

Larry Davis found the same issues with his part of the funeral business. He is the managing partner for Bunkers Mortuaries, Cemeteries, and Crematory.

He said there were a few instances of families unhappy with restrictions on graveside gatherings, but in general, people understood.

"You do the best that you can," he said, "Our job is to get the internment taken care of for the family in the most dignified way possible and to be able to let them have their time for the deceased."

The limit on graveside services was 10 people. Davis said some families opted to have no one at the service and others had the 10 family members and then everyone else was in cars at the cemetery.

Davis said December through February was very stressful for himself and his staff.

"It was very stressful for all of us that were working here," he said, "We were working longer hours.... and at the end of the day I would go home and I didn't want to talk to anybody and just wanted to sit for a while and be quiet." 

Davis often wondered when it would end and when it would return to normal numbers.

The state’s Funeral and Cemetery Services Board said the number of deaths in 2020 was up about 25 percent compared with years past.  

Jennifer Kandt is the Executive Director of Nevada’s Funeral and Cemetery Services Board, which handles licensing and inspects all funeral homes and cemeteries within the state. 

She said her office started getting calls in December from people complaining about how long it was taking for their loved one to be cremated or prepared for burial.

"We were getting a lot of calls from the public," she said, "So we tried to explain to them that there are so many deaths that are occurring that they just need to be patient and trust that the funeral home will handle people when they can," she said.

Kandt explained that cremation machines cannot be run 24 hours a day. They need to be allowed to cool down. She said most funeral homes were allowing the equipment to cool down for only six hours so they could keep up with demand.

That steep rise in demand did not necessarily mean a jump in the amount of money funeral homes were making, said Chris Robinson, a representative for the National Funeral Directors Association.

"Obviously, the number of deaths increased but a lot of families were not able to have the type of services they wanted to have because of the restrictions on the numbers of people," he said.

Robinson said some people wanted to have memorial services when it became safer to gather in larger groups, but many people didn't realize it would take as long as it has to see restrictions lifted.

He said some families are going through with delayed memorial services and some are still hesitant. He is working with a family to have a memorial service this week for a loved one who died in January. 

Laura Sussman, funeral director, Kraft-Sussman Funeral and Cremation Services;  Jennifer Kandt, executive director, Nevada Funeral and Cemetery Board; Larry Davis, Managing Partner, Bunkers Mortuaries, Cemeteries, and Crematory; Chris Robinson, representative, National Funeral Directors Association

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.