Funeral Industry News

Funeral directors: Bodies backed up in cooler

May 2, 2011

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Funeral directors: Bodies backed up in cooler

Sonoma County funeral directors say they are frustrated at the length of time involved in getting the death certificates and burial permits required to take care of the recently deceased.

Their concerns got a public airing last week when Elvira Orozco, funeral director at Windsor-Healdsburg Mortuary in Windsor, brought the issue to the county Board of Supervisors.

“It’s taking us what used to be an hour to get permits, it’s now taking a day or two,” she told the board. “That’s just too long for us to wait and have bodies sitting in our cooler. We can’t help families the way we are supposed to. We can’t schedule services because we have to wait and see if the county is going to issue the permit to do the cremation or to do the burial.”

Her concerns were echoed in interviews this week with funeral professionals at mortuaries across the county. They blamed reduced staffing in the county’s Office of Vital Statistics for increased times getting needed documents to deal with the dead.

So far, no funerals have been delayed, mortuary officials said, and the county public health department has said the Vital Statistics office staff soon will be bolstered.

Not long ago, the office had three full-timers and one part-timer, a number that’s been slashed by budget cuts.

Most recently a retirement in February dropped the vital statistics staff to a single clerk, whose duties include issuing birth and death documents, processing medical marijuana identification cards and answering phones for the public health building on Fifth Street in Santa Rosa. It’s too much for one person, representatives of funeral homes said.

“She’s just overloaded,” said Virginia Phy, a document specialist for Daniels Chapel of the Roses. “And the county seems insensitive to the time issues with families that have lost loved ones.”

Claudia Robles, the multi-tasking clerk, said she’s still able to stay on top of death certificates and disposition permits, just not as quickly as some funeral homes have come to expect. If a matter’s urgent, it gets priority, she said, adding that death certificates are legal documents requiring close attention for accuracy.

“Unfortunately, they want 30-minute service and that doesn’t work,” said Robles, a county employee for 21 years. “Things are being done by the end of the day, unless they can wait until the next day.”

Still, the shortfalls of such thin staffing were laid bare this week when Robles fell ill for two days, pausing the permit process entirely.

“The one remaining person is out sick so nothing can flow,” said Laura Neisius, general manager of Santa Rosa Memorial Park.

The situation has not delayed any final services, she said, but it has made timeliness more difficult and increased frustrations.

“It is a big problem,” Neisius said.

Mark Netherda, the county’s interim health officer, acknowledged some longer responses in the wake of the recent retirement, but he said the county still was meeting customers’ needs within required times.

“I am not aware that this has resulted in a delay or an inability for families to proceed with a burial or anything like that,” Netherda said.

The staffing situation will soon improve, he said. A newly hired clerk starts work Tuesday and two existing employees – one an accounting clerk, the other a public health assistant – will join her for certification in the California Electronic Death Registration System on May 10, allowing them to backstop the vital stats clerks when needed.

“It should be back to normal,” Netherda said.