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‘A Nightmare Every Day’: Inside an Overwhelmed Funeral Home

At the entrance of the chapel lobby, look first to the left: four bodies under white sheets on hardware-store-style metal shelves originally designed to hold something other than human lives. Next to those four were another four, and more in the middle, and more to the right. The 31 bodies on the shelves rested on plywood and cardboard beds, their heads on Styrofoam block pillows. The racks were so tall in one corner that the finial of an ornate chandelier cleared it by inches.

Bodies in coffins were rolled out. Bodies on stretchers were rolled in. Their uniformity was disrupted by the smallest details: a tuft of a woman’s long black hair spilling out of the top of her sheets, a right foot.

“We don’t know how the public will see it, but it was necessary,” Ms. Maldonado said of the chapel’s conversion. “The need brought us to improvise. We’re in America, so we suppose that we are prepared for everything. But in this emergency that we had, we were not.”

The trailer was cool and unusually empty. Eleven bodies were lined up on the right and seven on the left, all in cardboard boxes. The names were written in black marker on the flaps of the lids. The tallest stacks were four high, each box separated by a strip of plywood.

Victor Hernandez helped push a new one in, the 19th body. He was one of the newest employees of Continental Funeral Home.

Mr. Hernandez, 23, had been a chef at a sushi restaurant but lost his job during the state’s shutdown. Out of work for months, he went to the 7-Eleven across the street from the funeral home one day and saw the sign that Ms. Maldonado had posted at the corner: “Now Hiring!”

He started a few weeks ago, making $15 an hour, plus overtime. The co-worker who helped him push the stretcher down the middle of the trailer, Daniel Murillo, 23, was also hired recently. He used to work at McDonald’s.

“I’m not going to lie: The first day I had nightmares,” Mr. Hernandez said. “It makes me appreciate life a lot more now. I see my parents, my sisters — I see them differently than I did before. I’ve got to cherish them.”

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