ELSA, Texas — Johnny Salinas Jr., owner of Salinas Funeral Home, typically handles five funerals a week. But on a recent day, with the coronavirus tearing through his community, he saw that many grieving families in a single day.
A sixth family was waiting, too. His own.
Salinas changed from a polo shirt into a crisp black suit and left his office for the chapel next door. The light blue coffin of his great-uncle, who died of COVID-19, sat at the front of the room, adorned with white flower arrangements and a wooden crucifix.
“The virus is not sparing anyone,” Salinas said. “Not even my family.”
In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where a surge of virus cases has set off a flood of deaths this month, funeral homes — like hospitals — are overloaded and struggling to carry out basic services and keep up with the expanding crisis. Local funeral homes, officials said, have not experienced such demand in decades.
About 1 in 60 residents of Hidalgo County is known to have had the virus, and about 1 of every 2,000 people has died from the virus, a New York Times database shows. Hidalgo County now has one of the highest per capita death rates in the state.
At the start of July, fewer than 50 deaths in Hidalgo County had been attributed to the virus, according to the database. By Monday, there had been almost 470.
“It’s like a bad dream,” said Linda Ceballos, a co-director of Ceballos Funeral Home in McAllen. “You want to wake up, but you can’t.”
The death toll is forcing funeral directors to bypass traditional services such as velorios, viewings that sometimes last for days and are filled with prayers, hugs and sorrowful Spanish-language songs. Instead, many funeral homes now are shortening viewing times and limiting attendance. Some have ordered large refrigerator trucks to store bodies until they can get to them.
The virus’s spread seemed relatively under control in the area until the state reopened the economy in time for Memorial Day, local health officials said. Richard Cortez, the Hidalgo County judge, said the virus soon was wreaking damage through the region, where chronic disease and widespread poverty were already significant problems. More than 14,000 people have contracted the virus in El Valle, as the area is known to its mostly Latino residents.
Cortez has been a constant presence on Spanish and English TV and radio, urging people to wear masks, wash their hands and — most important, he says — keep distant from older and vulnerable relatives.
It is a tall request in an area where family gatherings and pachangas, or backyard barbecues, are hallmarks of social life.
In desperation, Cortez last week instituted a voluntary stay-at-home order, hoping that it would send a message.
“If 10% follow it, we are making progress. We need to protect our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles,” Cortez said in an interview. “Too many people are dying, too many people in misery.”
At his great-uncle’s velorio, Salinas, 30, had two roles at once: funeral director and mourning relative. Before family arrived, Salinas paced around the room, making sure it complied with hygiene guidelines.
Ever since Salinas was a teenager, he knew what work he wanted to do.
“Death is a journey,” he said. “God is the destination.”
When Salinas was 16, he had his own brush with tragedy. He said he was driving his 15-year-old sister and another teenage friend when a dog suddenly appeared in front of the car. In the chaos, the car flipped, Salinas said. His sister was killed.
“Now she’s always here with me, not physically, but spiritually,” said Salinas, who keeps an oversize photo of his sister, Deborah Lynn Salinas, bearing the date of her death — Dec. 6, 2006 — in the funeral home.
On this day, around the chapel, every other pew was sealed off with blue tape so people would sit apart. A plexiglass barrier shielded his great-uncle’s upper body in the open coffin to keep mourners from leaning in.
“People tend to want to hug and cry on their loved ones,” Salinas said.
Not long after, he talked a family member out of placing a rosary in the hands of Francisco Tafolla Sr., the great-uncle whom Salinas grew up simply calling uncle, who died of the virus at 85.
“It’s human instinct to want to touch the body, but they can’t,” he said. “It’s for their safety.”
White flower arrangements adorned a wall beside a large photo of Tafolla. Tafolla’s daughter, Gloria Tafolla Gomez, stood silently, nodding her head softly to the lyrics of “Un Dia a la Vez” — “One Day at a Time” — by Tejano band Siggno.
“He always delivered what he promised, even if that was a spanking,” Gloria Tafolla Gomez whispered to a relative. They both chuckled. “We were so afraid of him.”
Francisco Tafolla, who worked manual jobs in the gas industry, saved money to ensure that all of his 12 children went to college, Gloria Tafolla Gomez Tafolla said. She became a nurse.
Family members still do not know how he got the virus. “He never left the house,” said Tafolla, who is 63 and is Salinas’ aunt. Even before the virus, Francisco Tafolla had been battling other medical issues and recently had heart surgery, she said. Days after his first virus symptoms, he was gone.
“We kind of knew that if he ended up getting sick, that he would end up leaving us,” she said.
At Ceballos Funeral Home in McAllen, people seeking funerals during the pandemic have to wait several days, sometimes a week, Ceballos said. She has seen young victims, too, she said.
“Nothing is like it used to be,” Ceballos said.
Aaron Rivera, a funeral director and embalmer at Rivera Funeral Home in McAllen, said he ordered a refrigerated truck with a capacity for about 100 bodies to avoid turning people away. The volume has tripled in the last month, he said.
“They don’t get to see their loved ones when they are taken to the hospital,” Rivera said. “They should see them at the funeral.”
Salinas has been working around the clock, sleeping only a handful of hours a day. He owns two funeral home locations: one in Hidalgo County and a second in neighboring Cameron County. Smaller funeral homes have been referring grieving families to him when they have no more space.
“I tell them, stop sending them,” he said. “We are tired. We haven’t stopped. We need to sleep.”
On a recent afternoon, Monica Garcia told Salinas of the day that her mother texted her from a hospital, pleading to “get me out of here.”
Relatives rushed to the hospital parking lot, where a doctor explained that her mother, 61-year-old Sylvia N. Fuentes, had a better chance at beating the coronavirus in an intensive care unit than at home. They left feeling hopeful. The next day — Wednesday — her kidneys gave out, and she died.
During a two-hour meeting with Salinas, Garcia and other family members picked out a burial outfit. Fuentes would be dressed in her favorite dress. She would wear her favorite hair brooch she wore on special occasions.
“Peinala to the side,” Garcia said, mixing Spanish and English, or “comb her hair to the side.” “She loved taking photos and posing,” Garcia said. “She’d like to look pretty.”
The relatives picked a pearl-white coffin adorned with a medallion: “Querida Madre,” beloved mother. They shared a tender look that, in some other year, might have turned into a group hug. Instead, they looked down and returned to Salinas’ office to complete paperwork.
For Salinas, long days have begun to blend, one into the next.
When a call came in on a recent afternoon, it was from inside the funeral home. The virus had hit close again. The cousin of a funeral home worker had died from COVID-19. His body waited in the nearby chapel. Salinas excused himself and disappeared down the hall.