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While Responding To The Pandemic, This Funeral Home Lost Its Founder To COVID-19

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now to Texas, a state that's been hit hard by the coronavirus. The owner of one funeral home in Austin says his employees are akin to frontline workers during the pandemic. They've been working seven days a week helping families bury those killed by the virus. And while responding to the pandemic, the funeral home lost one of its own. Audrey McGlinchy from member station KUT has more.

AUDREY MCGLINCHY, BYLINE: Mission Funeral Home has been open in Austin for 60 years. And for the first time ever, the front doors are locked during business hours - no walk-ins allowed during the pandemic.

CHARLES VILLASENOR: We're going to have to take the precautions for the family, too, and also for ourselves because we have to continue to help people.

MCGLINCHY: Charles Villasenor owns a funeral home. Lately, he's been working long and odd hours. He's used to that - death is unpredictable. But recently, death has been very predictable and especially relentless.

VILLASENOR: Since we're having so many different cases, we had to work every single day. And it's been tough.

MCGLINCHY: In Austin, COVID-19 cases spiked in early July. In one day, the region reported more than 750 new cases. And the deaths followed. They went from one or two every couple of days to three or four each day. As the numbers ticked up, so did a clear disparity. Just over half of those who have died from the virus in Austin have been Latinos in a region where the population's about a third. Mission Funeral Home serves mostly Latino families.

VILLASENOR: The families depend on us. And so we're having to just keep going and going and going.

MCGLINCHY: And then the funeral home's founder, Charles' mother, died.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: On July 28, Lois Villasenor died from complications due to COVID-19. A mariachi band played at her funeral, where several dozen people showed up, keeping their distance and wearing masks. Friends talked about the funeral home's importance in Austin's historically Mexican American neighborhood, how from its start in the 1950s, it served as a community center.

Here's Texas state Senator Carol Alvarado.

CAROL ALVARADO: We know that they started here because of their passion and their drive to want to help (speaking Spanish). That was why they came here.

MCGLINCHY: Lois was 87 when she died. She was successful and the first Hispanic woman to serve on the state's funeral commission. She's now buried along with her husband in the Texas State Cemetery. The first symptoms of COVID-19 were unusual, her son says. Lois complained of sore legs. Then she had trouble breathing. She was in the hospital for a week, on a ventilator for most of that time, before she died.

Charles, Lois' son, says his job now feels more essential than ever. Hospitals typically don't let people visit COVID-19 patients, so the funeral home is often the first place families are able to see their loved ones since they got sick.

VILLASENOR: The situation really calls for us to prepare the loved one for the family, set the features, wash the hair, comb the hair, make sure that the family member is able to see the loved one.

MCGLINCHY: Charles and his siblings last talked to their mom via a Zoom call from the hospital. The day after she died, he went back to work.

VILLASENOR: I had a funeral with the family. And I told them my mother had passed away, and they'd go, oh, my gosh. And you're here doing the funeral. Well, my mother would've wanted me to be there. She would want me to go out there and do your job.

MCGLINCHY: Charles says the number of coronavirus deaths the funeral home's handling has gone down. After burying his mom, he felt a sense of relief. There hadn't been any COVID calls to the funeral home that day. Then he corrected himself. There'd been two.

For NPR News, I'm Audrey McGlinchy in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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