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Column: His business is body bags. Thanks to COVID-19, it’s booming

David Cameron, left, vice president, and Abdul Salam, president of Salam International, unpack a body bag.
David Cameron, left, executive vice president, and Abdul Salam, president of Salam International, unpack a body bag at the company’s Laguna Hills warehouse.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Your 2020 was probably terrible, but this past year was the best ever for Laguna Hills-based Salam International — moneywise, at least.

Weekly team meetings turned into daily ones due to all the extra work. The company’s warehouses in Orange County and New Jersey emptied of bestsellers again and again.

When I visited Salam’s headquarters some weeks ago, shrink-wrapped boxes on pallets sat ready for delivery to the East Coast. A previous shipment was already on its way to Tarrant County, Texas.

“Most people have a certain style and color, but they’re taking anything on the shelves,” explained owner Abdul Salam as he laid out one of his most popular items right now: body bags.

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In operation since 1992, Salam International’s business is death. Its 337-page catalog lists everything from autopsy tables to cadaver lifts to three-body refrigerators to an economy embalming station that’s on sale for $3,500.

For the past 12 months, body bags have made life hectic for Salam. Clients can buy them in 16 colors, from black to baby blue to emerald green. With zippers down the middle, around the top or on the edges. Adult- and child-sized. In orders of one or by the tens of thousands.

They’re produced in Thailand, and Salam has 15,000 in stock. An additional 150,000 are in the works. Clients include colleges, counties, states, the military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

So if you still don’t believe COVID-19 is real, then hear it from the man whose product will inevitably envelop you.

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“Wake up.”

I reached out to Salam after news emerged that Gov. Gavin Newsom bought 5,000 body bags in anticipation of a pandemic surge we’re now in the middle of. I figured his administration would acquire them from a California company. Instead, Newsom went with manufacturers from Illinois and Florida. (Hey, Gavin: Buy small and local next time.)

Salam never got a chance to bid, but he didn’t need to. His firm is busy enough as it is — and he’s not happy about it.

The coronavirus has been “good for our business, but it’s not good for the community,” said the 67-year-old grandfather.

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Salam is warm-natured and apologetic any time he uses a death metaphor, which is understandably often. “Record earnings, yes, but the emotional toll is more. In the end, you’re human and you feel.”

He came to his profession relatively late in life. The son of a wealthy family from Karachi, Pakistan, Salam migrated to the United States in 1972 as an 18-year-old looking to prove himself. He bounced around from Chicago to Florida to Southern California, starting and shedding companies and jobs and “trying to make it with something.”

That’s how Salam found himself one day talking to someone at the Orange County coroner. The worker told him autopsy saws were a “very lucrative market” with little competition.

After reading up on the trade and building some prototypes, Salam designed a simple flier, a copy of which still hangs in his office, with the tagline, “Now Autopsy Blades That Last, That Save.” He mailed them out to morgues, coroners and medical schools across the country, then followed up with cold calls and samples.

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His first two clients — Los Angeles County and New York City — allowed Salam to parlay his lack of experience into nationwide success. He quickly expanded beyond saws because “there’s only so much of a market for something that specific. It was do or die, so to speak.”

He says what distinguishes Salam International from the competition is superior customer service and prices that don’t rise with a calamity because “we’re not ambulance chasers,” as well as investment in better materials. Salam’s body bags, which range from $5 to $42.50 each, feature a clamp to ensure zippers don’t slip open.

“You don’t want a bag that when you lift it, the handles tear or it begins to leak,” said his vice president, David Cameron. “That’s not the time to have a cheap bag. You won’t be in business very long if you’re like that.”

“You have Levi’s jeans, or you can get fake jeans,” added Salam. “You want Levi’s.”

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One satisfied customer is Donnell McCullough, autopsy services supervisor for the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

“We give them the dimensions and the quality we want done, and they make it,” he said. His agency has contracted with Salam for six years. “They provide what we need, and their bids are consistently lower than others.”

Responders have used Salam’s equipment in most of the major U.S. disasters over the past 30 years. Earthquakes. Fires. Hurricane Katrina. False flags like Y2K.

Four days after 9/11, he overnighted plastic pouches to ground zero because regular-sized bags were too big for the scattered remains. When the Ebola virus threatened to overwhelm Gotham in 2014, the company assured the New York Post that it had 100,000 body bags on hand.

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“The hope is we’re happy to supply you with what you need,” said Cameron, who has worked at Salam International for two years. “The hope is you don’t need them all ... We know right away when something big happens, sadly.”

All that experience gave Salam “a sixth sense” about what the coronavirus was going to unleash last January, when he was in Australia to negotiate how much material he needed for body bags in 2020.

He requested double his usual take.

“Everyone was caught off guard,” Salam said. “No one expected [the coronavirus] to be as bad as it was.”

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Phone calls began to flood his office by February. By March, walk-ins showed up to Salam International’s small headquarters in the back of an industrial park, next to an ambulance dispatch center — something that almost never used to happen.

Right now, customers in Southern California are driving to pick up their purchases instead of waiting for delivery.

At the start of the pandemic, Salam asked bigger clients to ration their orders throughout the year so smaller ones who needed bags immediately had access to some.

“We paced it out so that no one ran out of bags,” said Cameron.

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“We did pretty good,” added Salam.

Salam sees the coronavirus rampaging through at least the third quarter of 2021 and the fallout to last a few years afterward. That probably means another banner year for his company — he wouldn’t disclose how much profit that involves.

But he’s not happy.

“It’s a recession-proof business,” said Cameron. “This industry doesn’t change with the economy. But when you see the pandemic, you learn that life is special.”

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“Life is precious, and we’re all part of the life cycle,” added Salam.

Then, he sighed.

“We all need money, but you can have only so much.”


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