In 1918, as the Spanish Flu pandemic took the lives of 881 people in San Antonio, the founder of a local funeral business wrote a message on the pages of a family Bible. 

Will Chambers told of “troubling and difficult times where we are saddened to avoid public spaces” and preparing for a “formidable adversary.”

In March, his descendants, the owners of Mission Park, took those words to heart and began preparing for a modern-day pandemic that has taken the lives of 298 residents in San Antonio, with no clear end in sight.

“It’s all come true,” said Mission Park CEO Dick Tips of his great-grandfather’s writings. As he watched the death toll rise in New York City in March and April, Tips and his wife Kristin, who sits on the Texas Funeral Service Commission, determined they would need to be ready if the virus hit San Antonio. 

Mission Park installed a 20-foot LED screen in the parking lot of its chapel on Southeast Military Drive that is seeing a steady stream attendees at drive-in funeral services. More importantly, the owners also embarked on a plan to build greater capacity to store bodies.

With added refrigeration space built in, Mission Park is providing overflow space to local hospitals running out of room in morgues.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began here in March, San Antonio’s 55 licensed funeral providers have been handling more services as the number of deaths from COVID-19 have shot up this month. Deaths from all causes are up nationwide, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, and the local coronavirus-related death toll could be higher than reported because deaths likely occur in people who have not been tested.

Hectic is how Angelus Funeral Home owner John Delgado described the last couple of weeks at his downtown facility. The number of funerals his home is conducting is up about 40 percent, but even higher at the funeral home his brother owns on the West Side. Delgado said some local funeral providers are talking about turning people away.

“It’s an interesting time we’re in right now,” Delgado said. “Unfortunately, back in March, when this first started, we were looking at it and sitting back and saying, OK, this isn’t so bad. Something happened somewhere.”

On a recent morning, three funeral services were on the schedule at Angelus. One was for a person who succumbed from complications from COVID-19. 

Several days before, the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office had run out of storage space for bodies, Delgado said, so the body of a person who had died at home from the virus was brought by a courier directly to Angelus rather than to the medical examiner as is usually the case.

Porter Loring Mortuaries, established in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, is turning to refrigerated trailers, which are guarded around the clock, for storing bodies until funeral services can be arranged.

A refrigerated trailer to provide additional storage of bodies awaiting burial is parked behind Porter Loring Mortuaries. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

With that problem solved, Porter Loring President Helen Loring Dear said the mortuary’s greatest challenge in dealing with the influx of families needing funeral services has been complying with state-mandated limits on mourners for services and burials. 

“Normally, we can hold 300 in our large chapel and we’re down to only allowing 50 right now,” Dear said. “We’re also having more and more services livestreamed … a saving grace for a lot of these families.”

Porter Loring is providing drive-by viewings and other socially distant ways to honor the dead, including placing photos of mourners’ faces on the pews during a memorial service so they can be “virtually” present. While the efforts seem to be appreciated by families suffering from a loss, she said, it is difficult for the funeral directors, who are accustomed to personally comforting those left behind.

“Grief is hard enough already – so add in the restrictions, add COVID. It’s just added grief for them because they’re not able to have that personal contact with families and extended families and friends,” Dear said.

Dear and the funeral directors who talked to the Rivard Report declined to provide the number of funerals they have overseen recently, but a count of obituaries on the Porter Loring site for July so far totaled 59. 

All said they have experienced no problems in sourcing enough caskets, chemicals, and other materials needed to prepare bodies for burial. But personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves is at times limited and so is the manpower needed to prepare bodies for disposition, said Darrell Woody, who directs the mortuary science program at San Antonio College. 

Woody said he has received several calls from local funeral homes requesting help, so he and other faculty members are assisting with embalming at those private mortuaries.

“I think it’s just one of those years, there are just a large number of deaths,” Woody said. “But that, coinciding with COVID-19, some people in our industry [were] caught off guard.”

Mortuary science students who were already working in the funeral business while continuing their studies are getting more hands-on training than they ever expected, he said. “I’m very sorry we’re going through this pandemic,” Woody said. “But the students … are being trusted to do a little bit more and to build up their skill set.”

More people seem to be choosing cremation for their loved ones instead of burials, said Woody, adding that might become a lasting legacy of the pandemic. Cremation is generally less expensive than burial.

“I think it’s going to stay high because people are realizing you can have a dignified, respectable service [before cremation],” he said. “Some of it’s due to COVID-19 and some of it is just economics.”

Like Mission Park, Schertz Funeral Home has its own crematory, said Manager Stacie Medina. In her view, the number of funerals this spring and summer has ebbed and flowed much the way it does at any other time.

In recent weeks, clients have said they don’t want too many people attending services for fear of spreading the virus, Medina said. “Or they want to postpone things until it’s safer.”

The pandemic has forced many people into making decisions about funerals unexpectedly. Nicole Salinas’ husband, Jacob, died July 14 of complications from COVID-19 after spending six days at the Audie L. Murphy Veterans Hospital. He was 49 years old and his death came as a shock for Salinas, who never got to say her goodbyes. 

Nicole Salinas holds her husband Jacob’s mask. Nicole Salinas’ husband, Jacob, died July 14 of complications from COVID-19 after spending six days at the Audie L. Murphy Veterans Hospital. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As a 37-year-old widow who had also contracted the virus, planning a funeral was the farthest thing from her mind.

“I was very scared about it because I never had to deal with anything like this, and he didn’t have any life insurance, which was the hard part,” Salinas said. Funeraria Del Angel Roy Akers on North Main Avenue helped her make arrangements based on her budget.

Salinas will bury her husband at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery on the earliest date that was available, July 30, after a funeral mass the same day. 

“But when I put out the times, I am going to strongly encourage people to not gather,” she said. “We can celebrate his life when it’s safer for us to do so. I just don’t want anybody else to go through this or to pass away.”

By most accounts, the mortuary business is not raking in profits despite the rising death toll. Delayed and downsized services and the expanded use of cremation have not only compelled funeral providers to get creative in how they support mourners but it also means families are spending less for mortuary services overall.

It’s not a money-making business anyway, Delgado said. 

“You can’t say these people died before their time or the virus took them ahead of time – no, their time was here,” he said. “Even at that, though, you have to have compassion for all your families.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.