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A model airplane is put into a coffin. A note under the pillow. Life in a funeral home as COVID increases

When Robert Zakar arrived at the morgue that his family owns in El Cajon, it was not yet 8 am Four bodies in coffins ready to be buried in the morning were lined up in the chapel. Two more were being prepared for afternoon services.

It would be a very busy day. At this time, every day is very busy.

COVID-19, which claimed nearly 600 lives in San Diego County in December – a month-long spike of more than 50 percent in the local death toll – has altered the cadence of final goodbyes.

This has been a steady stream of 15 hours a day for Zakar, whose East County funeral home is one of 100 funeral homes in the region. He sent 90 bodies on their final breaks in December alone, double the usual monthly average.

Sammy Deras, a funeral home attendant, and Kristy Oliver, embalmer and funeral director

Sammy Deras, a funeral home attendant, and Kristy Oliver, an embalmer and funeral director, make final preparations on four coffins, three of which carried the bodies of people who died after testing positive for COVID-19.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It has been non-stop,” Zakar said as he had a cup of coffee in the morgue office and looked at the wall where a large monitor displayed a spreadsheet filled with the names of the recently deceased.

Zakar bought the funeral home in 2011 and has been trying to grow the business. But not this way.

Not with a phone that rings all the time. Not with a reception room that you’ve had to convert into a coffin warehouse. Not with shipping companies so flooded that they can’t deliver orders for new crucifixes on time. He had to borrow a box of the metal crosses, used in Catholic services, from another morgue.

She hasn’t had to turn anyone away, and she doesn’t expect to, although sometimes her embalmer, Kristy Oliver, works late into the night to keep a backlog at bay that she ends up sleeping on a couch in the morgue.

Jonathan Jaboro, General Manager, and Robert Zakar, Owner, Look at a Digital Whiteboard

Jonathan Jaboro, General Manager, and Robert Zakar, Owner, look at a digital whiteboard that tracks all the deceased at their facility and plans for their funeral services.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“You do whatever it takes to help the families,” he said.

“Help” is a word often heard in morgues, this one included, but it has become more complicated during the pandemic. Traditional ways of saying goodbye – large gatherings of people sharing their stories and grief – have been limited by restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Robert Zakar prepares to go to a funeral service.

Robert Zakar prepares to go to a funeral service.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“You can no longer hug people,” Zakar said.

He held a graveside service Wednesday morning at Singing Hills Memorial Park in El Cajon that was attended by six people wearing masks and sitting in chairs several feet apart. A cemetery worker livestreamed the service on a tablet for others to view from home, touring the grounds at one point to give them a view of the surroundings.

When he finished, Zakar knelt near one of the mourners and told him to call if he needed anything else.

Then he hurried to his car. He had to go back to the morgue to attend to another burial, and then another after that.

Robert Zakar and Jonathan Jaboro transfer a coffin to a float

Robert Zakar and Jonathan Jaboro transfer a coffin to a float as they prepare to go to a funeral.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

To take precautions

Zakar, who is 47 years old, used to fear death.

He and a brother owned liquor stores and gas stations in the city. They didn’t like it very much.

They met the director of a local funeral home who came regularly to one of their stores. He was talking about the funeral service, he was talking about how much he loved helping people. The brothers were intrigued.

About 16 years ago, they started working in the industry, Zakar in the funeral home and his brother in transportation.

Nine years ago, Zakar took over what had been Paris Frederick’s funeral home on North Magnolia Avenue, a two-story building with a chapel on the ground floor, offices on the top floor, and a garage at the rear that it is so full of coffins that there is only room to park one of the three hearse.

“I used to be afraid to do this kind of work,” he said. “Now is all I do.”

The morgue handled about 530 bodies in 2019, a mix of burials and cremations. Last year: 618. Six days into the new year, there were already a dozen on the office spreadsheet, a rate that would put them at 730 by 2021.

Since the last wave of COVID-19, the coronavirus has been a factor in between 40 and 50 percent of deaths that reach the funeral home, Zakar estimated.

Empty coffins are stacked, waiting in a garage at the East County Mortuary and Cremation Service.

Empty coffins are stacked, waiting in a garage at the East County Cremation and Mortuary Service.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

You don’t know for sure because they’ve been too busy to count. The coronavirus is wreaking havoc, but there have been fewer deaths from other causes, such as car accidents, so maybe they balance out in the long run, he said.

The virus has made them take precautions. The body of someone who dies from COVID-19 is kept in storage for at least three days before being processed. The rows of the chapel pews are restricted one yes and one no, which limits the number of people who can attend visits and services. Masks are required for all visitors. Staff members are screened regularly.

“Before COVID, about 95 percent of our interactions with people were in person,” Zakar said. “Now, probably 70 to 80 percent are handled by phone.”

He said he misses providing the human touch, “but everyone gets it.” We all do the best we can with what we have. “

Details, details

A parked hearse, a stack of forms, and a casket for sale.

A parked hearse, a stack of forms including a “COVID-19 Acknowledgment Form,” and a casket for sale.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nine people work in the morgue, which despite its quiet exterior has many moving parts.

Bringing the body from the hospital or morgue. Find out where and when to hold a memorial service. Help family members choose a casket or urn. Get clothes for the body. Locate the death certificates. Write obituaries.

The spreadsheet projected on the office wall details the personal touches requested by the families. In a coffin, a model airplane. In another, a note under a pillow. Some of the bodies are heading out of the city, to Mexico. That means consulate paperwork.

“We have a saying here: If it’s legal and if it’s humanly possible, we will do it,” Zakar said. His staff gave him a cup of coffee with that written on it for his last birthday.

Robert Zakar pours himself a cup of coffee as he begins another long day at work.

Robert Zakar pours himself a cup of coffee as he begins another long day at work.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Watching them work in the office, they often seem to know what to do without being asked. Someone telephones a hospital, trying to locate a body. Someone calls a church about the availability of a priest.

Zakar takes a call from a customer and doesn’t call anyone in particular, “Can we do the San Pedro thing at 2pm?”

If you can. They do.

One Thursday morning, Zakar and Oliver, the embalmer, loaded a coffin onto one of the floats for a service at Holy Cross Cemetery in San Diego. The man had died from COVID.

Dressed in his uniform — dark suit, white shirt, striped tie — Zakar drove to the cemetery and parked by a curb. He gave five people who served as coffin holders white gloves and guided them through the process of unloading the coffin and leading it to a descent device over the already excavated grave.

As a priest blessed the coffin with holy water and offered prayers, Zakar stepped aside, head bowed, face masked, and hands clasped in front of his waist.

“People ask me all the time if I have become immune to death from being around them for so long, and the answer is no,” he said earlier, standing in the morgue office. “I love hearing the stories. People laugh, and I laugh. People cry, and I cry too ”.

What he does is not really about the dead anyway, he said. It’s about the living.

“You help them in the process,” he said, “helping them in their pain.” You’re there for them, and it’s the little things that matter. “

Even in the times of COVID?

“Especially in times of COVID.”

Robert Zakar drives away in a float carrying a person who died after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Robert Zakar drives away in a float carrying a person who died after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)