‘We’re just in limbo’: Funeral homes waiting for power and cleaned-up cemeteries

Donald Van Orsdel is very glad he bought a generator after Hurricane Wilma.

When Irma tore through South Florida this weekend, he knew he could count on the industrial size behemoth to power the downtown office of his funeral home, including its refrigeration service and crematoriums. It worked better than the $800 of dry ice he used after Andrew left his business, the oldest family-owned funeral home in Miami, without power for days.

On Wednesday, power was restored at all three Van Orsdel Funeral Homes locations — “praise the Lord” — and Van Orsdel was busy cleaning up smashed trees. But that’s not the case for dozens of funeral homes across the county, or many of the cemeteries.

Calls to many local funeral homes went to voice mail, answering services or just rang endlessly as the area deals with widespread power outages. Families postponed funerals and left their recently deceased loved ones in hospitals while they wait for life post-hurricane to return to normal.

When Irma cut his power, La Paz Funeral Home director Ray Fuqua didn’t have a generator to keep his customer cool, so he scrambled to find another company to take the body. A competitor offered to help him out at no charge.

“I’ve been in here since 1981. People do tend to try to help each other out when they can,” he said. “It’s absolutely admirable of them to do it.”

Like homes throughout Miami, people with generators often offered to house bodies from places without power.

But even with a generator, business is still halted at some funeral homes. Fernando Caballero, funeral director at Ferdinand Funeral Home, has generator power but no Internet access, so he can’t get death certificates or documentation he needs. The embassies he needs to get in touch with, so he can ship bodies to Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua, are all closed too.

“We’re just in limbo,” he said. “We’re anxiously awaiting the cemeteries to reopen so we can resume.”

CFF14 Cementery News rk

Hurricane Irma did minor damage at the Graceland Memorial Park North neighborhood on Wednesday. Funeral homes and cemeteries are still waiting for power to be restored and cemeteries to be cleaned up before they go back to business as usual.

Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Cemeteries throughout the city are closed while they deal with broken fences and trees strewn across the property, but Van Orsdel said that won’t slow the industry down completely. Cremation has become increasingly popular, he said, and accounts for 70 percent of his business these days.

Before Irma hit, Van Orsdel said one family dropped off a dead relative a few days early before they evacuated the area. His employees carried all the bodies, including about 10 extra from nearby hospitals and nursing homes, upstairs to the embalming and preparation area of their midtown mortuary school.

As the storm raged, Van Orsdel said he was still getting calls to pick up bodies. At certain times during the weekend, the winds were too high for his main removal company, or even his backup.

“We’re just like a hospital. We get calls 24/7,” he said. “We were bringing people’s loved ones in throughout the storm.”

Felipe Caballero, funeral director at Graceland Funeral Home, said his company held off on removals this weekend “just to be on the cautious side,” but now they’re backed up on cremations, viewings and funerals.

Some of those delays come at spiritual cost for families whose religious customs dictate burial within a certain window of time. At Van Orsdel’s Coral Gables location, manager David Gonzalez said a priest had to give a Russian orthodox family religious permission to reschedule the funeral.

“Families have been understanding in regards to delays, and their main concern was that we had their loved one in our care,” he said.

Van Orsdel said his earliest service is on Friday, and even then it’s dependent on the cemetery cleaning up on time. In Miami Beach, Murray Rubin of Levitt Weinstein Memorial Chapels & Cemeteries said work has resumed at his chapel, even though the storm blew his back door in.

“We’re fully operational,” he said. “It’s a miracle.”

For other funeral home owners, the timeline to being back in business is more murky.

“I have absolutely no idea when I’m getting power again,” Fuqua said. “I hope it’s soon.”