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Alabama’s record death toll impacting funeral industry

Published: Sep. 20, 2021 at 9:58 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Alabama set a new record amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 with more total deaths recorded than during any other year in state history.

At a press conference Friday, State Health Officer Scott Harris said 2020 will be the first year in the history of Alabama where there were more deaths than births. According to Harris, there were 64,714 deaths and 57,641 births last year.

The 64,714 death toll in 2020 is a nearly 20% increase from the 54,109 total deaths the Department of Public Health recorded in 2019.

Numbers from the Department of Public Health also show 2020′s death toll is anywhere from a 10,000 to 12,000 increase in the number of deaths in comparison to recent years.

  • 2020 total deaths in Alabama - 64,714
  • 2019 total deaths in Alabama - 54,109
  • 2018 total deaths in Alabama - 54,357
  • 2017 total deaths in Alabama - 53,240
  • 2016 total deaths in Alabama - 52,452
  • 2015 total deaths in Alabama - 51, 896

The increase in deaths has not only put a strain on our state’s health care system, it has also had a significant impact on the state’s funeral industry.

Those who work in the funeral industry say last year was challenging, but this year is not proving to be any different.

“We are tired. I feel like all, pretty much all the funeral directors across our state and across our nation are tired,” said Chris L. Thompson, owner of Brookside Funeral Home in Millbrook.

Thompson said despite having a busy 2020, they are seeing even more funerals, cremations and burials this year.

“We’re probably over 100 cases, 100 to 125 cases more right now than we saw this time last year,” Thompson said.

“As far as our cremation rates, they are up,” Thompson went on to say. “We do cremations for other funeral homes so when you add their cases, then that becomes our case, so we did close to 70 cases in the month of August and that was a lot for my staff to do plus the funerals, so the month of August has been our hardest month that we’ve had, and this month is following suit.”

Brookside Funeral Home isn’t alone though. Charles Perine, executive director of the Alabama Board of Funeral Services, says funeral homes across the state are busy.

“After talking to some of the different funeral homes in the state and some them are constantly, at a constantly busy rate,” Perine said.

Perine said though COVID-19 is a contributing factor, so are a long list of other causes.

“Whether it be COVID, whether it be an accident, whether it be murders, whether it be just general illness and sickness, there is a high death rate that is going on at the present moment,” Perine said.

All the while, funeral homes face the same problem as our state’s hospitals: not enough employees.

“Pretty much the whole staff here is working 10 to 14 hours a day to maintain what we’ve got,” Thompson said.

“The staffing is the biggest challenge right now, and just the sheer number that is coming in certain areas at one given time, but we have to adjust and we’re here to adjust and meet the challenge,” Perine said.

Perine said funeral homes have learned a lot over the course of the pandemic. He said some have invested in refrigeration systems for their firms and some crematoriums have put in second units to keep up with the demand.

Perine added that despite the increase in deaths and staffing shortages, it has not delayed funeral services for loved ones.

He said while some funeral homes have continued to restrict their services to graveside only, other have resumed in-person services. He also said a handful are still offering virtual streaming of services for families.

Perine said every funeral home in the state is working hard to serve their families in the best way possible given the current circumstances.

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