As Travis County hits record daily COVID-19 deaths, local transport, funeral services try to keep up

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — This week, Travis County hit a record number of COVID-19 deaths in one day: 17. Some who work in Austin’s funeral industry say they’re dealing with more grieving families than ever before.

Richard Avila said it’s the busiest he’s been in his 25-year career.

“It’s one after another after another,” said Avila, owner of Tranquil Mortuary Services, LLC. “We transport, pick up deceased for funeral homes, wherever it is that they’ve passed — whether it’s the hospitals, nursing homes, if we have to pick up at the medical examiners office.”

Normally he says that’s about 10 people per day. Now, it’s 15 — most of them COVID-19-related deaths.

Avila says normally he’d transport the deceased to the funeral home. Now, they’re asking him to hold bodies until their space opens up. (Photo courtesy Richard Avila)

He works with 17 funeral homes, mostly in Travis County but also in Williamson and Hays Counties.

“Out of those, how many would you say are at capacity right now and are asking you to hold bodies until they can get them?” asks KXAN’s Tahera Rahman.

“All of them,” Avila replied. “Every day, it’s different — some of them are at capacity one day and other ones aren’t, and some of them might have a space for one or two.”

Avila has two full fridges and is picking up another one on Friday. He’s also loaning a mobile fridge from Green Cremation.

“I know that that unit he can use, frankly, for other funeral homes,” said Eric Neuhaus, owner of Green Cremation in Austin.

Neuhaus said they tripled their capacity over the summer.

“Right now, we’re probably about eight or 10x over where we were a year ago. Compared to where we were in July of 2020, we’re about four to five-x over that,” Neuhas said.

The numbers caused some businesses to temporarily close this week, like Affordable Burial and Cremation Service in Austin, which posted the pause to its Facebook page on Monday.

On Wednesday, the business said they were able to “resume limited operations.” Neuhaus said so far, Green Cremation has been able to keep up.

He said two other factors are contributing to the increase in services that he’s seeing in cremation: He said winter months typically have higher death rates, and COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings and funeral services have more people opting for cremations.

Neuhas and Avila hope the surge drops in the next couple months. Until then, Avila and his team are on call 24 hours a day.

“We’re averaging — and this is without exaggeration, probably — maybe two hours rest. Not at night, but during a 24-hour period. If we can get 30 minutes here or there… We’ll take it,” Avila said.

Richard Avila (center) and his team. (Photo courtesy Richard Avila)

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