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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Morgues, funeral homes and cemeteries in hot spots across America cannot keep up with the staggering death toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: The U.S. has seen more than 10,000 deaths from the virus, and at least tens of thousands more lives are projected to be lost. The numbers are creating unprecedented bottlenecks in the funeral industry — and social distancing is changing the way the families say goodbye to their loved ones.

"This feels like three years of funerals condensed into a month," says Patrick Kearns, a funeral director in Queens. "So many of us were worried about the front end of this virus. Unfortunately, the back end of it is something people hadn't thought about."

What's happening: Morgues and funeral parlors in cities hit hardest by the pandemic are overwhelmed, with three or four times as many bodies as they're built to hold. While experts tell us the availability of burial plots at cemeteries is not scarce, burials and cremations are being delayed.

  • FEMA has asked the Pentagon for 100,000 military-style body bags to prepare for the surging death counts across the U.S.
  • States like New York and Massachusetts are setting up temporary morgues at college campuses and outside hospitals and nursing homes as existing facilities overflow.

But the supply is running out. Med Alliance Group, an Illinois company that provides refrigerated trailers to serve as overflow morgues during natural disasters and other crises, tells Axios it's been out of stock since early March.

  • Some funeral homes are attempting to help. Kearns says he has turned a chapel into a makeshift morgue using air conditioning units.
  • New York City councilman Mark Levine said the city was considering a grimmer solution: a mass grave site in a public park to bury the dead temporarily until funeral homes can work through the bottleneck.
  • New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo later shot the idea down, and Levine later tweeted that he had received "unequivocal assurance" from city officials that any "temporary interment" would not happen in the city parks.

Kearns tells Axios his business saw 15 funerals in the first half of March, compared with 50 in the second half. He's already seen around 50 cases in the first five days of April, he says.

  • "We’re at a point where I can’t serve anyone anymore. We need to put everything on pause," he says. "To have to tell a family that you can’t help them? It goes against grain of who we are as funeral directors. We're wired to help people."
  • Funeral directors around the country are also worried about shortages of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment as they tend to the bodies of the dead.

And funerals themselves are rapidly changing. Funeral homes across the U.S. are limiting services to immediate family members, enforcing social distancing, and even holding virtual ceremonies.

"How do you tell someone they can't come to a funeral?" says Mike Zuzga, a funeral director in a Detroit suburb. "We jumped from going to funerals to now live-streaming funerals overnight."

  • Live-streaming funeral services isn't new. Around 20% of funeral homes — including Zuzga's — offered it as an option last year, per National Funeral Directors Association.
  • But families have rarely asked for services to be recorded or streamed, Zuzga tells Axios. Now, almost every family is doing so.

The bottom line: Grieving during the pandemic will continue to be unusually painful, says Heather Servaty-Seib, a professor at Purdue University who studies grief and death.

  • "We want body disposition to happen in a timely way — It's very personal, and it's very intimate," she says. "Being able to physically see the person's body can be a very important part of the grieving process."
  • But calls and video chats can be powerful during these times, says Servaty-Seib. "I want to encourage people to think more creatively or more openly about how they memorialize."

Go deeper

Trump PACs raise over $82M for first half of 2021

Former President Trump during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, on July 11. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Former President Trump's political action committees (PACs) raised more than $82 million in the first half of 2021, per Federal Election Commission filings published on Saturday.

Why it matters: It's a significant amount for a former president who's been banned from major social media platforms. It demonstrates his ability to raise huge sums of money should he choose to run for the presidency for a third time.

Updated 1 hour ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Team USA's Caeleb Dressel celebrates winning gold in the final of the men's 50m freestyle swimming event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Gameson Sunday. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

🚨: Simone Biles won't compete in Olympic floor finals, individual vault or uneven bars

🏊: U.S. wins gold in men's 4x100-meter medley relay, earning Caeleb Dressel fifth gold — American Bobby Finke wins gold in men's 1,500-meter freestyle

🏊‍♀️: Katie Ledecky wins gold in women's 800m freestyle

🇬🇧: Britain wins gold in new BMX freestyle category and gold in first-ever Olympic mixed 4x100m medley relay

💻: Japan tests teleporting games and "remote cheering"

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Updated 1 hour ago - Sports

U.S. wins gold in men's 4x100-meter medley relay

USA's Ryan Murphy (L) and USA's Caeleb Dressel celebrate winning the final of the men's 4x100m medley relay swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on Sunday. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Team USA win the gold medal in the men's 4x100-meter medley relay, setting a new world record in the process on Sunday morning local time.

Of note: Caeleb Dressel won his fifth Tokyo Games gold medal during the event— becoming the fifth American to do so after speedskater Eric Heiden and the swimmers Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi and Michael Phelps, who achieved the feat three times.

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