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Uvalde funeral homes overwhelmed — but not alone — in preparing for burials

The first funerals for the 21 victims will take place on Tuesday, said Jimmy Lucas, president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association.
A large teddy bear is placed at a memorial in front of crosses bearing the names of the victims killed in this week's school shooting in Uvalde, Texas Saturday, May 28, 2022.
A large teddy bear is placed at a memorial in front of crosses bearing the names of the victims killed in this week's school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, May 28. Jae C. Hong / AP
/ Source: TODAY

While the community of Uvalde continues to mourn the deaths of 19 children and two adults shot inside Robb Elementary School, two local funeral homes are overwhelmed.

The first funerals for the victims will take place on Tuesday, said Jimmy Lucas, president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association. The father of two will be in Uvalde for the proceedings and to help in any way he can, he said.

“I’m bringing a funeral coach (hearse) and I’m going to be both a funeral coach driver and a director,” Lucas said, “and whatever other duties assigned, as we say.”

Lucas and a slew of other funeral directors, staff and volunteers across the state have been working tirelessly since Tuesday’s deadly shooting to provide the only two local funeral homes in Uvalde — Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home (located across the street from Robb Elementary) and Rushing-Estes-Knowles Mortuary — with the resources, staff and funding they need to lay the 21 victims to rest.

“People, funeral directors, embalmers, caskets — anything,” Lucas said.

The first volunteers sent to Uvalde were embalmers and morticians, who can provide facial reconstruction services for the families, Lucas said.

“We made sure that they had the best talent possible to take care of these families so that their final farewell could be as good as it could possibly be,” he said. “How can this family say goodbye, if they choose to see their loved one again, under the best possible scenario? Sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially in this case.” 

Support for funeral homes, staff

One of the initial asks from the funeral homes was a crisis counselor for their staff, many of whom know the victims they are now preparing for burial.

“We had a counselor to their place in 45 minutes,” Lucas said. “It’s not just about making sure that we have vehicles and people, it’s also about taking care of our people emotionally. Loss and tragedy is what we do every day in this profession, but the tragedy in Uvalde is something that no funeral professional wants to get overly good at.”

Lucas says that in small communities like Uvalde, it’s not uncommon to have only one funeral director. After a mass shooting, that means one person is tasked with handling multiple burials simultaneously.

“That makes everything more difficult,” he said. “Not to mention that I’m sure there are other people in that community that have nothing to do with this tragedy who are passing away and in need of funeral home help, too.”

Which is why, Lucas says, it’s vital that staff take care of themselves and have people who can help take care of them, too.

“It’s important that no one person is trying to take on more than they can handle,” he explained. “Even little things, like, ‘Have you eaten today? Have you had any water today?’ It’s really easy, in this profession, to look up and it’s 7 o’clock at night and you realize you haven’t done anything for yourself that day.”

Lucas says that a funeral home in San Antonio sent pizza to both funeral homes in Uvalde just to make sure the staff had something to eat.

"The less of a burden there is for them, the more it allows them to really be one-on-one with each one of these families. And that’s all any of us really care about," he said.

Help from Newtown

David MacDonald, the president of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association, knows what the funeral home staff and volunteers in Uvalde are facing.

In 2012, MacDonald was on the ground assisting Honan Funeral Home in Newtown, Connecticut, after a gunman shot and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were 6 and 7 years old. He says Honan Funeral Home served nearly half of the victims.

When he first saw the news reports of the Uvalde shooting, MacDonald said he instantly remembered the Sandy Hook assault and the days that followed clearly.

“You forget what you did last week, but that day is etched into my mind,” MacDonald said. “I can walk through that entire day in my head as clear as it was yesterday.”

After the Sandy Hook shooting, MacDonald and a team of volunteers banded together to help the Honan Funeral Home care for the victims and their families.

“When you see it on TV it’s one thing,” he said. “But there is no preparing for that type of severe loss. And it wasn’t just one funeral. There were four funerals one day, four funerals the next day. There was a local church that had given each family free graves. ... You could just see the next plot in the line of burials, all out in the same cemetery being a small community.”

Even though MacDonald and his association are halfway across the country, he said that after funeral directors and other funeral home staff learned about the shooting in Uvalde they immediately reached out to ask how they could help.

“I received two calls from other funeral directors in the state. ... They still felt the need to call and say, ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’ he explained. “One gentlemen said that if anyone needed to fly down, he would donate thousands of airline miles to purchase the ticket.”

MacDonald, who is the father of two children, 6 and 8 years old, said he was on the phone for hours speaking to one funeral director in particular. He said tears were shed.

“He spent several days in Newtown to help. He knows what happens,” he said. “So whatever help he could give, even if it’s hard to do from far away, he wanted to help — including sharing information about what worked well and what didn’t, or sharing some of the obstacles we ran into when so much is happening all at once under the cloud of such a tragedy.

“Any funeral director who has been called into this profession would drop what they’re doing in possible to help any way they can,” he added. “Even knowing it’s going to impact your own life in a way you’ll never forget.”

Honan, the funeral director who was tasked with preparing many of the Sandy Hook victims for burial, said the Uvalde shooting is affecting him — it’s a reminder of what occurred 10 years ago, a tragedy he and many others never thought would occur again.

“We’re, you know, we’re pressing on doing the best we can. I mean, it’s just a shame that these things just don’t stop,” Honan said. “They keep happening again and again, and it’s awful.”

Everyone in the small town is pulling together for the funerals. Kelly Baker, who has owned The Flower Patch, a local flower shop in Uvalde, for 10 years, said she and her staff are working nonstop to design and fill endless flower arrangements for memorials, families and funerals.

“We’re just all here gathering around these families to see if we can ease their pain a little bit by taking care of all the flower orders for them,” Baker said. “Obviously there are so many people reaching out wanting to send flowers, so that’s the role we’re playing.”

Baker said since Tuesday, her staff had processed more than 200 flower orders. As she began to describe the workload, she had to leave to tend to an issue with an order. The work does not stop.