PITTSBURGH — The system for issuing death certificates in Pennsylvania is so backed up that it took a month for Christine Gale to receive one from the state Department of Health after her father died on Thanksgiving Day.
Normally it would have taken only a few days.
But the surge in deaths that began in November, largely driven by the increase in COVID-19 cases, has caused an administrative pile up in Harrisburg, where bureaucrats process the paperwork from funeral homes and coroners.
For Gale, the extended delay held up the process of selling her dad’s car and caused a lot anxiety over selling his Oakland home because she couldn’t become executor of the estate without that document. She also had to pay for everything, including the funeral expenses, out of her own pocket — about $13,000 total.
“Fortunately, I had the money in savings to do this,” said Gale, a family law attorney at Frank Gale Bails, Murcko & Pocrass, Downtown. “But what if I didn’t? My dad’s bills would not have been paid while there’s money in his bank account to pay it, and I can’t access it.”
Robert Gale, who had worked as an American literature professor at the University of Pittsburgh, died at age 100 just as the death toll in Pennsylvania was on the verge of exploding. His daughter said COVID-19 was not a factor.
As casualties from the virus soared, practically every link in the death industry supply chain was overwhelmed.
Casket and urn suppliers have struggled nationally to keep up, while those at funeral homes and cemeteries around the Pittsburgh region have never been busier.
In December, the state experienced its highest number of deaths ever in a single month — 18,512, according to a preliminary estimate by the state Department of Health. By comparison, there were 12,283 statewide in December 2019.
State officials said they were unable to approximate the number of deaths for the month of January. “As deaths continue to rise above normal monthly records, the death registration is being delayed,” a Department of Health spokeswoman said.
After a death occurs, a medical examiner and a funeral home complete a report of death. The report is submitted to the state Department of Health, reviewed and then registered. Death certificates are issued from the records. The certificates, which cost $20, are essentially a printed document of the death record that is issued on a security stock.
At the start of the pandemic early last year, death certificates were delayed about two weeks as the Health Department transitioned to a telework environment. The spokeswoman said the agency has increased staff and resources to meet the need of what she called an “unprecedented” increase in deaths.
The delay in receiving official death certificates is yet another cruel side effect of the coronavirus crisis.
It’s causing families who often need a lifeline to wait longer for critical benefits they are entitled to after loved ones die — such as making life insurance claims or applying for Social Security benefits.
Families are at the mercy of the certificate being finalized before they can make any legal or financial decisions on behalf of the decedent. Elder law attorney Matthew Kikta said he had seen it too often lately.
“The delays have been up to several weeks,” said Kikta at Julian Gray Associates in Green Tree.
He said a certificate is required to admit a will to probate. The courts cannot appoint an executor without it, either. Banks also need to see it before allowing access to the decedent’s funds.
He has seen the delay in getting death certificates throw a wrench into all sorts of plans, especially when family members must travel from out of town to handle estate affairs.
“Traveling has become onerous due to COVID, and delayed death certificates can further complicate the logistics of efficiently handling a decent’s matters.” he said.
‘The dam broke loose’
The extraordinary volume of deaths in the past two months has strained the funeral industry, too.
“When you’ve been in this business for 45 years like I have, I can tell you things changed drastically in the last year,” said Joseph Toman, owner of Joseph A Toman Jr. Funeral Home & Crematory in Ellwood City, Lawrence County.
Business was already higher than usual to begin with because of COVID-19. Then his volume shot up another 30% in October.
Jarrett Sperling at Sperling Funeral Home in McCandless said his funeral parlor hadn’t been handling a tremendous number of virus-related deaths through much of last year. That changed in December.
“We had so many COVID deaths that non-COVID deaths were more unusual,” Sperling said.
“In December, the dam broke loose and the industry was flooded.”
Cemeteries are limited on how many services they can handle at a time, and that impacts when funeral homes can schedule burials.
Doctors also are swamped and some have made mistakes in the electronic system for registering deaths — partly due to being overwhelmed and partly from not being properly trained to use the system. It all slows down the process of receiving a death certificate, Sperling said.
Funeral homes aren’t allowed to cremate a body without a death certificate, although it is possible to do burials without one using a temporary permit. It all means funeral directors often must store bodies for longer periods of time, and that has caused problesome say.
“We used to get death certificates within a week,” said Scott Beinhauer, director of operations at Beinhauer Family Funeral Home and Cremation in Peters Township. “It slows things down and requires families to be a little more patient.”
A full-top casket
In a development specific to Pittsburgh, funeral directors say that a casket model that’s designed specifically for families in this region has become harder to obtain recently.
It’s called a full-top casket.
The half-top casket is more common in other parts of the U.S. The full-top allows viewers to see the body from head to toe, allowing them to verify whether the man or woman is wearing the preferred pants or favorite shoes as the family requested.
“We are continuing to honor these regional preferences, but with the rapid increase in deaths across the country, inventory of some of these more unique items may be tighter,” said a spokeswoman for Batesville Casket Co., the nation’s largest casket maker.
The Batesville, Ind.-based company is executing a full court press to keep up with the demand, with its manufacturing plants in Indiana and Tennessee working seven days a week to fill orders, she said.
Total COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have reached about 430,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“It’s hard to think of a time when our mission — and our core products — were more important,” the spokeswoman said. “We understand there is a grieving family behind every product and are committed to working as hard as we can … to support our nation in this time of crisis.”
The supply chain issues are evident in funeral homes.
For the first time in memory, caskets are on back order and some families are having to settle for models other than the ones they prefer, said Martin McGonigle II at J. Bradley McGonigle Funeral Home in New Castle.
Cremation urns are another problem.
“Before I let a family pick an urn, I find out what they like and I call the supplier to see if I can get it,” Sperling said. “It’s about 50-50. They had normal supply and when the demand shot up, they couldn’t raise the supply.”