Orange County’s public cemeteries are filling up, partly because of an uptick of people buying graves for future burials pushed by the pandemic, according to public cemetery officials.

Tim Deutsch, the cemetery district’s general manager said the pandemic has increasingly pushed people to buy grave spots for future use.

“In the past, there hadn’t really been a high percentage of our sales,” Deutsch said. “But this past year, we saw a dramatic shift in the efforts for families just to be prepared in the event of a loved one passing away and I think the pandemic actually put that on their radar.”

Full casket spaces are all filled up at Anaheim Cemetery and Santa Ana Cemetery, two of the three public cemeteries run by the OC cemetery district, Deutsch said in a Wednesday phone interview.

“That means for any new families coming in that like those cemeteries or have other family members interred at that location, they cannot utilize that cemetery for new burials,” Deutsch said. 

As of July 1, Deutsch said there’s 3,650 graves left at El Toro Memorial park in Lake Forest — the county’s third public cemetery — which should be enough space to last about four to five years.

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The shrinking amount of graves could start limiting burial options for the county’s low-income residents.

“From affordability standpoint, if nothing happens for us within the next five years, then any family who has loved ones that pass away that can’t afford to be buried at private cemeteries or Catholic cemeteries aren’t going to have that affordable option and are basically going to have to make choices to either go out of out of county out of the state, out of the country,” Deutsch said.

He said that there are alternative options for people when it comes to burials, like cremation.

The Muslim community is also apparently having a tough time finding graves since the pandemic hit because their faith doesn’t allow for cremation.

Since March 2020, the district has buried about 220 people who died from COVID, which made up between 10-15% of the services.

The virus has killed roughly 5,200 OC residents, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

That’s almost five times more people than the flu kills in two years, on average.

Orange County has averaged 543 annual flu deaths since 2016, according to state health data.

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In a follow up email with the Voice of OC, Deutsch said that the Anaheim cemetery filled up eight years ago, while the cemetery in Santa Ana depleted at the beginning of the pandemic.

At a news conference earlier this month, Supervisor Katrina Foley said cemeteries are filling up as well as raising prices for funerals.

“What we haven’t really talked about I don’t think a lot in Orange County is the cemeteries and how our cemeteries are really filling up and some of the cemeteries are charging really high prices for families to bury their family members,” Foley said.

The cemetery district, which is partly funded by taxpayer money to offset costs, has not raised the fees which are set by the district’s board every year, according to Deutsch.

He said the of cost to hold a service at one of their cemeteries roughly ranges from $5,000 to $6,000.

OC Muslim Community Struggles to Find Graves, Timely Burials

Not everyone’s religious beliefs allows for cremation, such as the county’s Muslim community.

At a news conference Foley convened earlier this month, she said the Muslim community is having a hard time burying their dead.

She elaborated more during Thursday’s news conference.

“I had a meeting with several Muslim doctors a couple of weeks ago and they shared this concern with me, they shared the concern that they are working with the community to try to find alternate locations even going so far as to open up a cemetery themselves,” Foley said.

Shakeel Syed, a board member of the Muslim Mortuary and Cemetery Committee, also noted that Muslims were having difficulty finding places to bury their dead earlier this year but the situation has since stabilized.

“I think people were dying three times more than normal,” he said in a Thursday phone interview.

The committee is a volunteer-run nonprofit that has purchased sections in Melrose Abbey Memorial Park in Anaheim and Westminster Memorial Park.

Still, Syed said they are looking for more burial space.

“If this trend continues then certainly we will run out of space shortly,” he said.

Syed said at Westminster, there are around 3,600 people buried and space for about 1,000 more, adding that a lot of the empty spots in Westminster have been bought for future use.

“Melrose Abbey, we do have some space, I think we can last maybe at the current rate another year, but then we will decide somewhere in between if we need to buy additional space,” he said.

Syed noted the Muslim religion calls for quickly burying the dead.

“It is a communal collective obligation and responsibility to ensure that that person is Islamically laid to rest, even if that person does not have the resources,” he said. “Muslims and Jews both like to see their loved ones laid to rest as soon as possible in most cases within 24 hours, but no later than 48 hours.”

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Goulade Farrah, the funeral director for Olive Tree Mortuary in Stanton, also said the process of burying a Muslim is similar to that of the Jewish community, which is an expedited burial.

“When you have a cemetery who has scheduled weeks to wait or because of how many cases they have, or a shortage of their staff, it affects the funeral. Those are things that we can’t plan ahead,” Farrah said in a Wednesday phone interview.

Because there is only space in one of the three public cemeteries in the county, Deutsch said the earliest a burial can be performed is a week to a week and a half.

The cemetery district does not do burials on Sunday to give staff a day off.

“During the height of the pandemic, we were working seven days a week,” Deutsch said. “If you had a family member that had passed, the soonest we could schedule a service was about six weeks out. So it’s gotten a lot better.”

Muslims also wash the body of the deceased before the burial service depending on how the person died.

“In the beginning of COVID when we didn’t have a vaccine or anything like that, we would not allow anybody to participate. We would do the washing ourselves,” Farrah said.

Farrah said the prices to bury someone have gone up at certain cemeteries.

“Before, you’re looking at $10,500-11,000 now it’s about closer to $16,000 -17,000,” he said because of the lack of space.

To address the problem of space, the county has deeded land to the cemetery district — part for a public cemetery and the other for a Veterans’ cemetery.

[Read: Veterans, County Leaders Rally Around Veterans Cemetery in Gypsum Canyon, Legislative Battle Looms]

Deutsch said the land is a total 283 acres with 50% going to the veterans cemetery. He added that roughly 80 acres of that land is available for a new public cemetery at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim Hills.

“We don’t plan on developing all 80 acres,” Deutsch said. “We’re hoping that what we develop first will last about 20 to 30 years before we need to do our next phase of development.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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