SUN CITY, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - So much in our lives has changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The role of first responders though? Still as important as ever.

But what about the last responders? People who work at funeral homes or with cremation services. Well, their role in this pandemic is significant as well.

At Sunland Memorial Park in Sun City, General Manager Dan Salter takes a moment to think about how this pandemic has changed a business that is already pretty tough to navigate even without COVID-19.

"We've seen an increase in our death rate in the 20 to 30% range," says Salter. "And we have been busier as a result."

Busier, without adding staff members. That's because many of the new services offered by the mortuary and cremation center have been virtual, to accommodate for both the health of all involved and the lack of accessibility this pandemic has caused.

"Out of this pandemic, I think there is some good in terms of the services we can offer these families," says Salter.

But virtual chapel services or funerals have also taken a toll on those in the industry, as they are limited in their ability to console those who have lost loved ones.

"This business lends itself to offering condolences and support and comfort," says Salter. "With that in mind a big part of that is just giving a family a hug. And you can't do that anymore."

While a simple gesture like a hug might not seem like a huge deal, licensed marriage and family therapist Laura Rhodes-Levin says that these social interactions that have been altered again and again due to the pandemic can often carry over into life outside of work.

"You get compassion fatigue, you're dealing with people all day long," says Rhodes-Levin. "And then you go home, and it's safe to take it out on your family."

At Sunland Memorial, it's only a staff of 30. Many of the employees have worked at the mortuary and cremation center for a long time. They've become a family of their own, and have leaned on these difficult shared experiences to get them through the tough times.

"They're professionals, they step up every day. And they've been stepping up for a year," says Salter. "I couldn't be more proud of the associates here. And I'm looking forward to when we can do some of those things without being fearful."


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