Health

The last responders of San Benito County

With one funeral director fighting COVID-19, local mortuary owners speak on working through the pandemic.

San Benito’s two privately owned mortuaries have been overburdened with work since COVID-19 spread throughout the county. These morticians or “last responders” have quietly kept pace with the pandemic while facing risk themselves. 

The Sander family: John, Donna, Nick and Jonathan. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Sander.
The Sander family: John, Donna, Nick and Johnathan. Photo courtesy of Johnathan Sander.

Johnathan Sander and his brother Nick at Black-Cooper-Sander Funeral Home and Gavilan Hills Crematory at 363 Seventh Street in Hollister have been handling record numbers while their father, John, has been hospitalized with the virus. On Jan. 25, Jonathan said his father was on a ventilator and fighting for his life. 

“It’s been really tough on all of us,” he said.

The funeral home, owned by the Sander family, has operated as a business in Hollister since the 1870s. There are six full and part-time employees. John is the only one who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. He has been in the hospital 19 days as of Jan. 27.

Small towns have limited capacity

Hospitals and funeral homes in California have been overwhelmed with the number of bodies from COVID-related deaths. Some areas of the state have had to resort to refrigerated trailers as temporary morgues. With 51 local deaths from COVID-19 as of Jan. 27, San Benito County has not had to use them.

“We were overwhelmed, but we’ve pretty much been catching up,” Sander said, confirming that in the previous week the funeral home had over 17 bodies, mostly due to COVID-19. He said the mortuary has a capacity for 30 bodies at its two locations in Hollister and Gilroy.

Black-Cooper-Sander Funeral Home in Hollister. Photo by John Chadwell.
Black-Cooper-Sander Funeral Home in Hollister. Photo by John Chadwell.

Between Black-Cooper-Sander Funeral Home and the 100-year-old Grunnagle-Ament-Nelson Funeral Home and Crematory at 870 San Benito Street in Hollister, as well as the San Benito Sheriff’s Office which handles coroner services, the county has a capacity for 38 bodies at one time. Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital has no morgue, according to Marchel Nelson, co-owner of Grunnagle-Ament-Nelson with Tom Ament for the last 50 years.

Extreme caution needed with COVID-19

People have basic needs when it comes to funerals, and the choices are limited. Nelson said this is because extreme care needs to be taken from the time funeral homes pick up bodies at the hospital to when they are either cremated or buried. In the time of COVID-19, the assumption is that bodies are contagious. He said his funeral home staff dons protective gear—including gowns, masks, face shields, and double gloves—when they pick up bodies at Hazel Hawkins.

There are Centers for Disease Control guidelines for funeral home workers when it comes to handling decedents of COVID-19 and, according to Nelson, the mortuary follows them closely.

“When someone passes from coronavirus, the hospital sanitizes the body and puts it in a body bag, and then we’ll double wrap the body before bringing it back to the mortuary,” he said. “At the mortuary it’s placed in a refrigerated environment.”

Grunnagle-Ament-Nelson Funeral Home in Hollister. Photo by John Chadwell.
Grunnagle-Ament-Nelson Funeral Home in Hollister. Photo by John Chadwell.

Impacting funeral services

“The hardest thing right now, in terms of what’s normal and not normal, you’re restricted as to how many people you can have at a funeral service,” Nelson said. “You have state rules, county rules and religious rules, as everybody is trying to be safe. People can cremate, but religious ceremonies aren’t being allowed. There’s not a casket, for the most part, for religious services.”

Nelson said the funeral home was overwhelmed early in the pandemic because there continued to be the “normal” number of deaths unrelated to COVID-19.

“San Benito County basically takes care of the people within the county,” Nelson said. “You don’t normally have a lot of folks coming from out of the county wanting to do business with us. We’ve been able to take care of the families within a reasonable period of time, which is normally a five-day period, from the time we pick up the body to what the family wants to do.”

Funeral arrangements have also changed since the pandemic began. Instead of meeting with several family members in an office, it’s done either with a single individual in the office or over the phone. Nelson said individual family members are sometimes permitted to pay their respects by viewing the body from a distance.

“Some folks say, ‘I haven’t even had a chance to say goodbye to dad,’” he said about allowing them to view the bodies. “They don’t like it, but they at least get to see their dad’s face—while the body is in a protected environment where they’re not touching him.”

Attitudes about cremations versus funerals have been changing over the last few decades. Thirty years ago, Nelson said, perhaps 7% of those making the arrangements opted for cremations, whereas today the number is closer to 65%, especially since COVID. There are some families, though, who insist on a funeral ceremony.

“If the person has been embalmed, we’ll let immediate family come and pay their respects,” he said. “It’s a very limited number of people. But with certain groups of people, they’ll want to touch the person.”

He said it’s unfortunate, though, that this cannot be allowed because if one individual is sick with COVID-19 they could potentially pass it to everyone else who touches the body.

Nelson said eight people work at the funeral home and none have contracted the coronavirus.

“We’ve been fortunate,” he said.

Nelson said he did not know how many people under the mortuary’s care died of COVID-19. Not even the coroner’s office can be sure because autopsies are not done in cases of “natural death,” according to Capt. Eric Taylor of the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office.

“Though communicable diseases are to be reported to the coroner’s office, we don’t actually track them,” Taylor said. “Public Health and the Public Health Officer are in charge of that. The Public Health Officer actually has to sign off on every death certificate in the county.” 

He said there are five kinds of defined death: homicide/murder, suicide, accidental, natural and undetermined.  

“Four of the five call for an autopsy,” he said, adding that all autopsies are done at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center by the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner.

“COVID-19 is considered a natural death. It is the same as a heart attack or cancer. Unless the death occurred outside of the care of a doctor,” said Taylor. “So, if there was no explanation for why someone died—i.e. he or she was fine yesterday and dead today—we would take jurisdiction and do an autopsy as at the time of death it would have been ‘undetermined.’ So, an autopsy can actually reveal a ‘natural death.’ But if someone was diagnosed with COVID-19, then died from respiratory failure, that would not fall under our jurisdiction. The doctor caring for the person would actually sign the death certificate. So, the only type of death that does not call for an autopsy is natural.”

 

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]