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‘This Has Been The Hardest’ Month: Life – And Death – In An El Paso Funeral Home

A man in black clothing and a black mask stands next to two coffins.
Courtesy of Jorge Ortiz
Jorge Ortiz manages six funeral homes in El Paso.

More than 800 El Pasoans have officially died due to complications from COVID-19. Hundreds of deaths are still under investigation.

Perches Funeral Homes manager Jorge Ortiz sees the devastation of COVID-19 up close. He works with families who have lost loved ones to the virus.

“The last two weeks, we have received more COVID cases than the past, I would say, months,” Ortiz said. “When we hit the peak back in the summer, that’s nothing compared to what we’re living right now.”

Ortiz runs six funeral homes in El Paso. So many bodies have come in, he had to convert one of his chapels into a cooler, transforming the sacred space into a refrigerated storage area.

“It was something that needed to be done because we were looking at the numbers just increasing,” Ortiz said. “Right now, sometimes we hit that capacity quick.”

His team tries to manage the constant flow of bodies — “the workload behind the scenes” — while also comforting grieving families.

“We have funeral directors who are meeting with five, six families a day,” Ortiz said. “This is every single day. It’s nonstop.”

They help families plan events to honor and say goodbye to their loved ones, despite limitations on how many people can gather together during the pandemic. Perches now offers drive-through funerals and livestream memorial services.

Ortiz does what he can to support mourners who couldn’t be with beloved family members for their final moments and are still reeling from the suddenness of their deaths.

“They just took them to emergency, they left them there, and next time they saw them was two weeks later when they passed away,” he said. “But they saw them in a coffin. They saw them in the funeral home.”

Some are grieving multiple losses.

“There’s many stories where family members have not only lost one family member but they lost both of the parents and then siblings,” Ortiz said.

All this work takes a toll. The Perches team is consoling families while navigating their own grief and mourning one of their own: pastor and funeral director Harrison Johnson died of complications from COVID-19 on Oct. 15.

Johnson was known for his constant smile and ability to know what a grieving family needed right when they walked through the door, Ortiz said.

“What he taught me, it’s gonna stay with me all my life. Just listening to people, reading their gestures, what they’re going through...He was definitely a stupendous person.”

Though Ortiz had spent months burying COVID victims, Johnson’s death affected him on a deeper level.

“When you know someone so close, I think that’s when it really hits you,” he said. “Through all these months of this pandemic, this has been the hardest in my personal life.”

His team is struggling too.

“We are funeral directors, but I always say that we still are human beings,” Ortiz said. “We have emotions. We finish our day, we go back to our families. Most of our funeral directors, they go back to their houses maybe feeling fear. They’re just scared to bring this virus home.”

Still, Ortiz feels compelled to continue this work.

“Even though I do care about my health as well as my family, my service needs to be provided to these families that are mourning. They need guidance, they need help,” he said.

Ortiz and his team were there for El Paso during another communal tragedy: The mass shooting on Aug. 3, 2019, when an alleged gunman from North Texas killed 23 people at a local Walmart, saying he was targeting Mexicans. Perches handled many of the funerals; Harrison Johnson led a widely-attended funeral service for one of the victims.

Now, Ortiz says, his team is committed to serving their community again.

And he has a message for the community.

“I think I just wanna say this is reality,” he said. “This is very serious. And everyone should be caring for themselves, for their health. Not only for them but for others.”

Music credits: "Naptime," "Come As You Were," and "Taoudella" by Blue Dot Sessions.

Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.

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