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NYC struggles to bury dead

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-04-09 11:29

A Healthcare worker wheels the body of a deceased person into makeshift morgue outside the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, US, April 6, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

New York City’s morgues are filling up with thousands of bodies due to the coronavirus, forcing officials to seek alternative burial places.

New York state, the state hardest hit by COVID-19 in the US, reported its highest number of virus-related deaths in a single day on Wednesday, with Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing that another 779 people had died.

That brought the virus death toll to 6,268 in the state, which Cuomo noted was more than twice as many people as the state had lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"I went through 9/11," he said at his daily news conference. "I thought in my lifetime I wouldn’t have to see anything like that again — nothing that bad, nothing that tragic."

New York state now has more confirmed coronavirus cases than any country in the world — 149,316.

"It’s obviously been a bit overwhelming in the hardest areas which are really the Queens and Brooklyn areas — where most of the deaths are occurring," Michael Lanotte, executive director and CEO of the New York State Funeral Directors Association (NYSFDA), told China Daily.

The organization, based in Albany, has 900 members and represents more than 3,000 funeral directors.

Lanotte added: "They’ve been working very long hours. On average I’ve heard back from them it’s 7 am until 1 am, phones are ringing from families in need on a regular basis. Some (businesses) have already gotten close to their normal year’s worth of (funerals) they would serve in the last three weeks."

Around the city, there are 130 makeshift refrigerated trucks to store bodies. They are located mainly outside hospitals, and often parked along sidewalks near people’s apartments.

The loading of corpses by forklift trucks has been observed at Brooklyn Hospital Center. A makeshift morgue has been built outside Bellevue Hospital and other hospitals, like Lenox Hill in Manhattan.

Before the outbreak, New York City’s death toll was typically 20 to 25 people a day, now it’s around 240.

New York City Councilman Mark Levine sparked outrage this week after he said the city’s parks could be temporarily used to bury people in "a dignified, orderly and temporary manner".

He quickly backtracked on the proposal, tweeting: "I have spoken to many folks in City gov’t today, and received unequivocal assurance that there will be *no* burials in NYC Parks. All have stated clearly that if temporary interment should be needed it will be done on Hart Island."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also dismissed Levine’s idea saying: "There will never, ever be anything like ‘mass graves’ or ‘mass internment’ in New York City, ever."

On Tuesday, the city’s Chief Medical Examiner Office posted on its website that it would no longer hold bodies in refrigerated storage for 30 days until they are claimed. Instead, they will hold them for just six days.

Those not claimed by a funeral home will be sent to Potter’s Field, the city’s cemetery on Hart Island, off the coast in the Bronx.

For more than 100 years the mile-long cemetery has been where at least 1 million unclaimed bodies, low-income New Yorkers and those with AIDS have been buried. It was first used to bury Union soldiers from the Civil War.

It has been run for 150 years by the Department of Corrections and has inmates from Rikers Island jail to dig graves. In March, the city raised how much it paid inmates to put caskets in graves,from $1.50 an hour to $6, as it wanted to increase the pool of prisoners available to help operations, officials said.

Deaths from COVID-19 have completely overwhelmed the city’s crematoriums, and regulators are now allowing them to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week until June.

Crematory chambers are also under stress due to frequent use. They are usually heated between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, but are not able to undergo an idle period in between use because of the pandemic, said Richard Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery.

The city has four major crematoriums. One of those, All Souls Crematory, at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, has gone from doing eight cremations a day to 24, The Wall Street Journal reported.

At least half of the cremations there are for people who died of coronavirus-related causes, according to the general manager, Dennis Warner.

Health implications related to COVID-19 have also forced families to change their plans, according to Moylan. New York state says 10 people can attend a burial but must stand 6 feet apart.

Some bereaved loved ones are no longer renting a wooden casket for a wake before the body is transferred to a cardboard box for cremation.

At St. Michael’s Cemetery, families are not allowed to be present, and the body is taken directly from a hearse to the crematory to minimize the risk of spreading the disease.

"This is like nothing anyone has ever experienced before in terms of grieving," Lanotte said. "When people are trying to comfort one another, most of the time, that includes a hug or a handshake or a kiss, and it’s so heart breaking."

The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) represents 20,000 members in 11,000 funeral homes in the US and 49 countries worldwide.

A spokesperson for NFDA told China Daily: "Thus far, the only request for assistance — both on-the-ground assistance and critical supplies— have come from the New York City area, which is seeing unfathomable numbers of deaths due to coronavirus. In the coming days, NFDA expects to deploy volunteers to New York City."

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