More than 10,000 New Yorkers have lost their lives to COVID-19, and the city's funeral directors are working around the clock to meet the grim demands of the pandemic. But some have told Gothamist/WNYC that it has become increasingly difficult to retrieve bodies from the makeshift morgues parked outside area hospitals, prompting funeral cancellations, creating confusion about the location of a loved one's remains, and prolonging the grieving process for families.
Joseph Lucchese, a funeral home owner who runs his eponymous parlor in the Bronx, blamed the limited hours that the refrigerated morgue trucks are open to release bodies to morticians.
“We have to call first, then they give you a day that you’re able to go and they put the person’s name on a list for release,” said Lucchese in an email. “I understand the system, and in theory, it should work, but it will only work efficiently if they extend the hours more than the current 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I don’t think they want 100 funeral directors swarming on the hospital at one time, but to keep the flow moving steadily they should extend the hours, in my opinion.”
Joe Neufeld Jr., a funeral director who runs a parlor with his father in Queens, encountered that problem last Friday when attempting to collect a body that was originally loaded onto a 50-foot truck parked outside Elmhurst Hospital, part of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation that's been hit hard by the outbreak.
Neufeld was told the body had been transported to Randall’s Island. He sought to arrange a pickup for the weekend, but was told that trucks inexplicably operate Monday through Friday from 12 to 3 p.m.
Neufeld had to break the news to the family he was servicing that the cremation scheduled for Friday was not going to happen. He managed to pull a few stringsto get the body on Easter Sunday. It was a rare exception, he said.
“Between 12 and 3 [p.m.] that’s my time to call cemeteries, to call crematories, people are coming in to make arrangements, or I’m trying to work on paperwork. It’s right in the middle of the day so it’s not necessarily the best time for me to go and leave, spend an hour or so trying to pick up a body. It’s inconvenient,” said Neufeld, whose funeral home in Elmhurst has been open more than 100 years.
Compounding his frustrations are the regular operating hours for the Office of the Medical Examiner, which operate from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and involves a lengthy process of sign offs and documentation. Neufeld would like to see those hours expand. “In the middle of the pandemic, I don’t understand why they just don’t open it 24/7,” said Neufeld. “I’m basically working around the clock. I don’t see why they don’t.”
A spokesperson for New York City Health and Hospitals did not immediately respond to repeated requests for comment.
Dean Wilson, a funeral home director at Benta’s Funeral Home, traveled from his parlor in Harlem to Brooklyn Hospital Center only to be told that the body he needed to retrieve over the weekend was in one of the morgue trucks, which only operated during the weekday. The new hours were 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“I came all the way from Manhattan to Brooklyn to get turned away,” said Wilson.
A spokesperson for Brooklyn Hospital Center told Gothamist that the hospital's morgue hours were from noon to 8 p.m., though they did not specify whether it was for their morgue or the refrigerated truck.
Last week, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner quietly changed its policy to hold unclaimed or unidentified bodies for just 14 days, instead of the usual 30, before they are interred on Hart Island, a potter's field in the Long Island Sound. (The policy has been changed again to 15 days.) According to the city's Department of Correction, which oversees the process, the burials on Hart Island have increased nearly fivefold—from 25 burials a week to 24 burials every day, five days a week.
Wilson expressed frustration that hospitals insist on the prompt removal of bodies to make space in morgues but then don't provide enough time for funeral directors to pick them up. “If you’re going to say all of that then make it easy for us to come. Don’t [say], ‘Oh well. We’re full, but you can only show up between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., or 5 p.m. is the latest you could come.' That’s not practical, especially when we’re handling more cases than we ever had before.”
Update, 4 p.m.: New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation returned an email to Gothamist explaining the network "remains committed to working with families, funeral directors, the Office of the City's Medical Examiner, and others to ensure an easy transfer of decedents. Our condolences are with those who have suffered any loss during the COVID-19 pandemic."