For the first time since it opened 60 years ago, Mission Funeral Home in East Austin is keeping its doors locked during business hours. You need an appointment to come in.
The intention is not to keep the grief out; that employees will face up close. It’s to protect against any potential spread of the coronavirus.
“We’re going to have to take the precautions for the family, for ourselves,” the funeral home's president, Charles Villaseñor, said, “because we have to continue to help people.”
Since the spring, Mission Funeral Home has served many Hispanic families who have been devastated by the coronavirus. As of last week, Hispanics in the Austin area accounted for 51% of coronavirus cases and 48% of deaths related the virus, while making up roughly a third of the population.
“The outbreak is concentrated around our Latinx community," Austin Public Health interim Medical Authority Dr. Mark Escott said in late May.
Employees at Mission Funeral Home have been working seven days a week to help families bury loved ones killed by COVID-19, Villaseñor said.
In early July, as new coronavirus cases in Austin reached a record of 753 reported in one day, Mission Funeral Home began getting calls from two to three families a week who’d lost someone to the virus; at the end of the month, it received 10 calls in one day.
Villaseñor said he’s currently booking funerals two weeks out, which frustrates families who want to hold a service right away.
“We're not on the literal front line, but the front line can't function without us,” he said.
Then on July 28, Villaseñor had to start planning another funeral of someone who died from complications caused by COVID-19: his mother. Lois Villaseñor, who started the funeral home with her husband Charles in 1959, was 87 years old.
But that didn't mean he'd stop working.
“We have no control over what's going on and the families depend on us,” Villaseñor said. “We're having to just keep going and going and going even through my own mother's death.”
Villaseñor said because his parents straddled two cultures and languages, the business often functioned as a community center.
“The families came here for many different things, not just for funerals,” he said, describing how his parents would help people in the community read and translate documents.
“I admired Eloisa for her place in this community,” state Sen. Carol Alvarado said at a service held Thursday, using the Spanish iteration of “Lois.”
Several dozen people and a mariachi band gathered – masked and distanced – at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in East Austin to celebrate her life.
“Long before scooters arrived to Austin or the hipsters or the man buns, Charlie and Eloisa were building a community here on the Eastside," Alvarado said. "And it is because of that foundation that they laid, the real estate that they bought, the businesses that they helped build, why this particular part of Austin can grow and prosper.”
Lois Villaseñor was named Austin’s Outstanding Professional Woman in 1978, according to her obituary. A decade later, then-Gov. Bill Clements appointed her to the Texas Funeral Service Commission, and she became the first Hispanic woman to serve.
Friends described her as fiercely loyal to her family and an accomplished businesswoman with a daring streak; Villaseñor had a pilot’s license and flew in her “off-time.”
“Here comes this stunningly beautiful, petite, professional woman, impeccably dressed, in command of herself and her environment,” Eliza May, a former president of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said during the service. “She was formidable.”
That toughness continued until her death. May, who first met Villaseñor in the 1990s, described how she appealed multiple times to state officials to ensure she could have an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on her gravestone in the Texas State Cemetery.
“She felt a deep responsibility to bring the powerful Hispanic religious icon to the state cemetery,” May said. “Our Lady of Guadalupe will be there by her side along with her beloved husband, Charles, for the state to witness the strength of the Hispanic culture … Vaya con Dios.” (Go with God.)
Charles Villaseñor said he now shares something with the families who come to Mission Funeral Home: He understands the sudden loss of knowing someone killed by COVID-19.
“It’s far more traumatic for the family because everything happened very quickly and they don't know where [the virus] came from," he said.
At the time of her death, Lois Villaseñor had dementia and was being cared for by aides 24 hours a day. She began complaining of a soreness in her legs, which her family originally thought might be gout. But when she started having trouble breathing, Villaseñor and his two sisters were pretty certain she had COVID-19. They debated whether to take her to the hospital.
“If she went to the hospital, we would not be able to see her,” he said. “We would not be able to care for her.”
But they ended up taking her, and she tested positive for the coronavirus. The hospital didn’t allow her to have visitors, but the family was able to see her through video calls, making jokes and saying prayers.
They didn't get the chance to see her in person before she died.
Villaseñor said death is often the first time families can be near loved ones who have contracted COVID-19, so the care funeral workers take dressing and cleaning people becomes that much more significant.
“The situation really calls for us to prepare the loved one for the families, set the features, wash the hair, comb the hair,” he said.
A family can come close to the body only if it’s been embalmed, he said, because that acts as a disinfectant against the virus. Villaseñor said some families who opt for cremation still have the body embalmed and dressed – work typically done only for an open-casket service – so they can see their loved ones.
“[People who lose family to COVID-19] really do suffer the loss on a lot of different levels,” he said.
A day after Lois Villaseñor was admitted to the hospital, doctors put her on a ventilator. At one point, doctors said her lungs continued to work alongside the machine and it seemed like she might recover. But a week later she died.
Villaseñor was back at work the next day. He had to help a family with the funeral of someone who, like his mother, had died because of the coronavirus.
“I told them my mother passed away and they go, 'Oh, my gosh. And you're here doing the funeral?’ 'Well, my mother would have wanted me to be there. She would want me to go out there and do your job.'”
Villaseñor said the number of coronavirus deaths the funeral home is handling has started to slow down since late July. On the night of his mother's funeral, he started feeling calmer, thinking they hadn't received any coronavirus calls that day.
“I thought that was a good sign,” he said. “Then I realized ... we [actually] got two.”
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