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

The first volunteers were embalmers and morticians who can provide facial reconstruction services for the families.

While the community of Uvalde, Texas, continues to mourn the deaths of 19 children and two teachers shot and killed inside Robb Elementary School, two local funeral homes are overwhelmed as they prepare for the funerals.

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

“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.”

A woman hugs a girl as they cry during a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 25, 2022. Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images

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.

Preparing the bodies so the families can say goodbye

The bodies of many of the deceased children were so badly mangled by bullet wounds, officials first asked parents to help them identify the victims by describing the T-shirts, pants, dresses or shoes the children were wearing.

Unable to properly identify the slain children using clothing descriptions alone, officials eventually had to identify the victims via DNA swabs taken from their parents.

Chethan Sathya, a trauma and pediatric general and thoracic surgeon and the director for Northwell Health’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention, says the devastation of a single gun shot is far more severe in a child than in an adult.

“All their vital organs are much closer together (because) they’re smaller,” Sathya told TODAY Parents. “So one bullet can injure many organs, and there’s a much higher likelihood of more devastating damage in a child than an adult.”

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

"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," Lucas explained. "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."  

'It's important that no one person is trying to take on more than they can handle'

One of the initial asks from the funeral homes was a crisis counselor for their staff, many of whom personally 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. In the wake of a mass shooting, that means one person is tasked with handling multiple burials simultaneously.

"That makes everything more difficult," he added. "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, more importantly, 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 both funeral homes in Uvalde pizza just to make sure the staff had something to eat.

"It's a beautiful thing," he added. "And everything we're doing, we're doing completely out of respect for the two owners. They are in charge. We just make sure there's nothing that they don't need. 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."

Funeral homes receive help, support 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, including 20 6-and 7-year-olds. He says Honan Funeral Home served nearly half of the victims.

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

"You forget what you did last week, but that day is etched into my mind," MacDonald told TODAY Parents. "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 explained. "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 is halfway across the country, he says 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."

Image: Mass Shooting At Elementary School In Uvalde, Texas Leaves At Least 19 Dead
A family grieves following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. Brandon Bell / Getty Images

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

"He spent several days in Newtown to help. He knows what happens," he explained. "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."

Daniel Honan, the funeral director at Honan Funeral Home who was tasked with preparing many of the Sandy Hook shooting victims for burial, says the Uvalde shooting is certainly impacting 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 told TODAY. "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, says she and her staff are working non-stop 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 told TODAY Parents. “Obviously there are so many people reaching out wanting to send flowers, so that’s the role we’re playing.”

Baker says since Tuesday, her staff has processed more than 200 flower orders. As she began to describe the workload, she was interrupted and then quickly had to leave to tend to an issue with an order — the work does not stop.

Kerry Breen's reporting contributed to this story.