Overwhelmed by Covid deaths, America's largest cemetery refrigerates bodies as families wait weeks for funerals

Rose Hill Memorial Park and Mortuary, North America's largest cemetery, struggles to keep up with demand from Covid-19-related deaths. By Maria Morava and Scottie Andrew, CNN

(CNN) -- Spanning 1,400 acres and eight venues, Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary in Southern California is the biggest cemetery in North America.

But the number of Covid-19-related deaths since the holidays have so challenged its capacity that grieving families are having to wait a month for funeral services and the cemetery has had to order refrigeration units to hold the bodies.

"Hospitals have really been impacted. Their morgues are filling up," Patrick Monroe, president and CEO of Rose Hills, told CNN. "Our goal was, when a family calls, that we can always say 'Yes, we can go. We can go get your loved one.'"

Refrigeration is the latest adaption Rose Hills, located east of Los Angeles, has had to make in the face of Covid-19.

With indoor funerals prohibited by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the cemetery has set up tents to hold outdoor visitations and funeral services throughout its memorial park. It also offers livestreamed services.

For families who want to wait until restrictions are lifted, Rose Hills is temporarily entombing the bodies of their loved ones.

After requests for services spiked post-Thanksgiving, the cemetery struggled to keep up with demand. The usual wait time for services at Rose Hills is one week. Now, families are waiting up to five weeks.

"People have been very understanding," Monroe said.

In many cases, families of loved ones were unable to visit them in their final days because of hospital visitation restrictions.

"They still want to do traditional things," he said. "They want to have a burial."

The 750 employees at Rose Hills have been resilient despite the demand, Monroe said.

"People who get into this line of work come with a very empathetic, compassionate disposition," he said. "The hardest thing that I'm hearing from employees is that they want to serve the families the best they can, but it's been such a heavy demand. It takes its toll."

Monroe said Rose Hills is offering employees additional assistance programs, including special compensation, along with break rooms stocked with snacks to support employee well-being.

The long term toll, he said, remains to be seen.

"They've shown a lot of resilience thus far," he said. "But, you know, we've been at it for a year now."

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