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COVID-19 Brought More Profit, New Challenges To Texas’ Funeral Industry

Manuel Guerra, funeral director at Leal Funeral Home in South Houston, experienced both a lay-off and being overwhelmed with work in 2020.
Florian Martin
Houston Public Media
Manuel Guerra, funeral director at Leal Funeral Home in South Houston, experienced both a lay-off and being overwhelmed with work in 2020.

On a recent Monday morning, in the sanctuary of the Leal Funeral Home in South Houston, a closed white and gold casket was awaiting the next family to come in. That’s when funeral director Manuel Guerra says they’ll have the opportunity to see their loved ones first, before anyone else comes in.

These days, ceremonies are limited to about 60 family members and friends in a room that fits 190.

Guerra has been in the funeral business for 40 years. But 2020, he said, was a year like no other.

"November to February, historically, was the busiest time of the year," Guerra said. "Well, when this coronavirus started, oh my gosh. Some funeral homes businesses went up almost 100% to 200%. We had one case in one week, we had almost 39 funerals in one week. That's what some funeral homes do in one month."

For the funeral industry, the coronavirus pandemic has been a huge challenge. Not only have many been overwhelmed by COVID-19’s mounting death toll, they’ve also had to change how they operate.

And for some working in the industry, 2020 was a roller coaster.

Leal tripled its business last year, he said, keeping all four of its locations in Houston very occupied. June and July were the busiest months.

"We were here at one time before 7 o'clock in the morning getting someone dressed for a visitation," he said. "And 9:45 at night we're still dressing bodies."

As someone working in the funeral industry, he’s used to seeing death.

But this has been different.

"We had a wife – young – that died in the beginning of one month. And four weeks later her husband died," Guerra said. "It's just sad, it's tragic." Guerra said he himself lost four family members to COVID-19.

The situation has been the same for funeral homes throughout the state.

Harvey Hilderbran, executive director of the Texas Funeral Directors Association, said it's not just that funeral homes have been doing more funerals. They’ve also had to do more just to help out over-burdened hospitals and medical examiners — things like picking up and temporarily storing bodies.

That’s on top of the risk of getting infected from someone who died from the coronavirus.

“All those things that we normally handle, those have all been challenged and exacerbated,” Hilderbran said. “But then (there are) also other things, where we're more into service, and a part of the first responders, and a part of the emergency responders, and we worked for FEMA in the Valley."

At the same time, the restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic have limited the types and sizes of services funeral homes usually offer.

In fact, in the early days of the pandemic, Guerra of Leal Funeral Home was laid off from his position at another funeral home.

He didn't have to wait long for a new job, as infections and deaths surged in the summer. But for a time, the virus forced the industry to change the way it did business.

"When the (coronavirus) first came out, a lot of families and a lot of funeral homes were doing only cremations," he said. "And maybe just have a memorial service with just a few people present but not the body present."

Looking back to the start of the pandemic, some in the funeral industry were worried about declining revenue last year.

Tom Ryan, the CEO of Houston-based funeral home giant Service Corp. International said as much in a Forbes article back in April.

But a look at SCI's latest earnings report shows the company increased its revenue by more than $160 million through September compared to the same period in 2019.

"It's a bit awkward and very humbling for us to speak to you today about our financial results for the quarter at a moment in time that has been so sad, so challenging and filled with so much uncertainty for so many people," Ryan said during a conference call with investors in October.

At the Leal Funeral Home, Guerra said business usually goes up year over year. But it’s hard to deal with double or triple the number of funerals.

While in things calmed down a bit in the latter part of the year, he was hopeful that things would go fully back to normal in 2021.

"And I pray," he said, "that the cure is around the corner."