Jan 01, 2021

Texas Funeral Homes Take a Financial Hit Despite COVID-19 

Reporting Texas

Matthew Martinez, funeral director at King-Tears Mortuary, demonstrates  prepping a veteran for a funeral service on Dec. 4, 2020. Mizelle Mayo/Reporting Texas

Texas funeral homes are making less money during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite at least 27,000 COVID-19-related deaths statewide, because the services that drive their profits are less attractive to families worried about spreading the disease.

Texas has had over 1.5 million COVID-19 cases, including at least 50,000 in Travis County, where more than 500 people have died. Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and El Paso are experiencing some of the highest rates of positive cases in the state, according to the Texas Department of State and Human Services. Though Austin has not had a major increase in deaths, funeral homes in the city are experiencing the grueling effects of caring for families during the pandemic.

The 750 funeral homes represented by the Texas Funeral Directors Association  are facing a difficult time, said Gene Allen, the immediate past president of the association and owner of three funeral homes in Texas.

Families are increasingly having graveside services, which ultimately decreases the revenue funeral homes generate, Allen said. Families also are not using limousines as often, reducing another revenue stream, he added.

Harvey Hilderbran, executive director of the Texas Funeral Directors Association, agrees that the funeral industry is taking a tremendous hit. 

“It might be a speculation or assumption that funeral homes have done better. You know, do more business. The volume is up but the actual numbers are down,” Hilderbran said of profits.

The increased load is putting a big stress on funeral home staffs.

“There aren’t enough warm bodies to go around and take care of everything in a day’s time, and people are working a lot of overtime and you can’t afford to go out and hire extra people,” Allen said.

“There are families that’ve buried two or three members of their immediate family in the last four to six weeks,” Allen added. In turn, families are purchasing less expensive merchandise and opting for cremation more often.

The situations vary by city.

Stuart King, funeral director and embalmer at King-Tears Mortuary in Austin, said families are having trouble grappling with the grieving process in a time of social distancing. 

“That’s what breaks my heart the most. Because these families are grieving, but they don’t get the support for healing. So the healing process is just cut off,” King said.

Since the pandemic started, King-Tears has seen a steady flow of clients, with 18 COVID-19- related deaths by mid-December. At the beginning of the pandemic, they were only allowing families to have 10 people in the chapel and at the cemetery. They are now allowing between 50-75 people into the chapel, practicing social distancing, and asking that everyone wears a mask. Families are also wanting to livestream services, adding more expenses for the funeral home. More families are opting to have graveside services because there is now no limit on the amount of people who can participate. 

Matthew Martinez, funeral director at King-Tears Mortuary, moves a body into the funeral home’s chapel on Dec. 4, 2020. Martinez embalms up to five bodies a day. Mizelle Mayo/Reporting Texas

Starlyn Aurit, the marketing director at Harrell Funeral Home in Austin, agrees that this is a difficult time for families. 

“We’re here to love on them, and to help them get through,” Aurit said.

Harrell has also seen “quite a few” COVID-19 deaths, Aurit added. For funeral services, Harrell has also had to adjust services to keep families safe and socially distanced. They are only allowing 50% capacity for services and are offering live streaming services. 

Harrell is offering virtual resources for their clients, such as online grief platforms, and also held its annual Christmas remembrance ceremony for families who have lost loved ones. Because of the pandemic services were different, with one service being held outside by a Christmas tree and one inside with limited capacity. Harrell also offered Christmas ornaments with the names of family members who passed away this year.

Mt. Carmel Funeral Home, in El Paso, is grappling with the deadly effects of COVID-19. Michelle Verduzco, the administrative assistant of the funeral home, said it has been overwhelming. According to the El Paso Strong website, El Paso has seen over 98,000 positive cases, and more than 1,400 deaths. 

Mt. Carmel had 91 funeral services in November, about 70% of them being due to coronavirus.  Before the pandemic, Mt. Carmel typically had about 30 services a month.

“We are completely booked through January,” Verduzco said. 

Mt. Carmel has also run low on caskets, although it has been able to meet its needs. 

Nancy Walker, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Central Texas, agrees that Texas’ funeral industry is taking a negative financial hit. The disruptions caused by COVID-19 hinder families’ ability to plan ahead and funeral homes’ ability to give families elaborate services. 

“Cremations are definitely on the rise,” Walker said. 

Cremations have nearly doubled at Mt. Carmel, Verduzco said.

Verduzco says that this pandemic is a totally new experience for her and for the funeral homes that are struggling through it. 

“For myself, it’s an emotional tiredness,” Verduzco said. “It’s emotionally draining.”