When the first wave of coronavirus infections hit Southern Arizona early last summer, Martinez Funeral Chapels was suddenly forced to maximize its resources to meet the public’s demand for their services.
After getting a glimpse of what the new virus meant for them, general manager Tamye Martinez Espinosa, whose family owns the business, said they took advantage of the slower months in early fall, when the pandemic abated, to prepare in case a second wave hit the community.
That meant installing a walk-in refrigeration system at their Tucson funeral home to accommodate clients at both their Tucson and Nogales locations.
“We’ve always been able to manage with the storage capacity that we had,” Martinez said, adding: “Nogales was becoming so busy that we were having to transport some of the human remains up to Tucson to be refrigerated.”
That extra capacity was put to use at the end of 2020, when the pandemic returned with a vengeance and deaths related to COVID-19 soared to their highest levels in Santa Cruz County.
Following the months of June and July, when the County Health Services Department confirmed the deaths of 23 and 27 local residents, respectively, the total number of COVID-19 deaths recorded over the next four months decreased to 20. But that figure shot up to 31 in December – an average of one a day – and then got worse.
Through the first 17 days of 2021, the county confirmed 34 deaths from the disease – a rate of two per day. That brought the total number of confirmed COVID-related deaths among local residents to 132 since the first death was confirmed on June 1, 2020.
Meanwhile, deaths for other causes have continued as well, putting the county’s two mortuaries under an unusually heavy strain.
For the Martinez family, their services were booked solid starting in mid-November, and that continued throughout December.
Ron Adair, owner of Adair’s Carroon Mortuary, which also operates in Nogales and Tucson, said he began seeing a gradual increase in demand for funeral services about four months ago.
“There were probably about four or five (services) a week, which is a substantial number for down there in Nogales,” Adair said, adding: “There are also those who decide to have a celebration of life later on, and so they don’t do services now because they can’t congregate.”
At Martinez Funeral Chapels in Nogales, Tamye Martinez said they saw the same weekly average at their highest peaks of demand.
The two local funeral homes have faced two main challenges throughout the pandemic: keeping their clients and staff safe, and offering new alternatives for families to say goodbye to their loved ones in a proper manner.
In regard to the first issue, the facilities have followed similar safety precautions that included limiting the number of people allowed during services and ensuring that everyone wears masks.
Adair said his staff was careful about using personal protective equipment during each service. “We do what we can and we try to recommend things that will help the families, so that they can do their grieving because it doesn’t change that aspect of it,” he said.
As for new alternatives, Martinez said they’ve added Zoom video calls that allow family and friends to attend services virtually if there’s no more space for them in person.
She said her family worked through the holidays to accommodate those who had lost their loved ones to COVID-19, as well other families trying to grieve their loved ones without the traditional services that they longed for.
It’s had an impact on their own wellbeing, she said.
“We go home and we can’t shut those emotions off, so it has taken a toll mentally and emotionally for us,” Martinez said. “Granted, we do have more business, but it comes with an additional sadness.”
Adair said that when it comes to providing families with funeral services during the pandemic: “It’s down to just adapting and making sure you’ve done everything you can to help them.”
“The big thing is you don’t really want to give them more reason for a bunch of them to get together,” he added. “We can get through this, but we need to really make sure we’re doing it right.”