Inside One Funeral Home in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — I thought I understood the Covid-19 death toll. Then I started spending time at an East Los Angeles funeral home with the photographer Alex Welsh.

Off and on for several weeks, we watched the life of the death business at Continental Funeral Home for this story. It’s hard to begin to describe what it was like. I’ve reported on death before as a journalist — too much, really — but this was something different.

The scale of it all was the most disturbing.

There were so many bodies — in zippered bags, in sheets, in cardboard boxes, on stretchers, in racks — that they lost some of their individuality. But they gained something, too: a kind of silent, numbing collective power. In the chapel area where I counted 62 one afternoon, the rooms felt crowded with their presence. Even the busiest workers had a way of lowering their voices there.

I’m sure others have studied the trauma of body removal in mass disasters. There was a hurried normalcy to all this — the workers unloading flat sheets of cardboard for future boxes, the radio in a back room playing classic rock, mariachi music drifting into the halls from a funeral outside. But normalcy was deceptive. One funeral-home worker told me one of the people she relied on the most during the pandemic was her therapist.

I didn’t tell my son and my daughter what story I was working on. I wore two masks, and a black medical gown. People stared at me as I walked from my parked car to the building.

I spent a lot of time just counting. I’d ignore everything else and count the bodies around me. That’s how my notes looked. On one page I wrote: 31 + 7 + 4 + 2. It was its own language, and more powerful than any sentence I could write.


The mind sort of resists mass death. We think of death as singular, individual. So Alex and I naturally sought out the relatives of Covid victims, to help us put a name and a story to at least a few of the dead.

I stood in the Continental parking lot one evening for the funeral of Humberto Cruz Perez, who was 38, worked at a nursery and had been married for eight months. His 4-year-old stepson kicked a ball during the services. His sneakers lit up with every step.

“It’s hard for him to understand, so being here maybe it will help him,” said the boy’s mother and Mr. Perez’s widow, Maria Carrillo. “It breaks my heart. I wish I could take that pain away.”

I remember a coroner back in Texas, which I used to cover. She kept a Latin phrase in her office. It read: Mortui Vivis Praecipant. Let the dead teach the living.

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ImageAn Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, Wash. The company lifted starting pay to $15 an hour three years ago.
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
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I spent a lot of time just counting. I’d ignore everything else and count the bodies around me. That’s how my notes looked. On one page I wrote: 31 + 7 + 4 + 2. It was its own language, and more powerful than any sentence I could write.

The mind sort of resists mass death. We think of death as singular, individual. So Alex and I naturally sought out the relatives of Covid victims, to help us put a name and a story to at least a few of the dead.

I stood in the Continental parking lot one evening for the funeral of Humberto Cruz Perez, who was 38, worked at a nursery and had been married for eight months. His 4-year-old stepson kicked a ball during the services. His sneakers lit up with every step.

“It’s hard for him to understand, so being here maybe it will help him,” said the boy’s mother and Mr. Perez’s widow, Maria Carrillo. “It breaks my heart. I wish I could take that pain away.”

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