New York City is burying its unclaimed and anonymous dead at a rate of almost five times more than usual, as public officials struggle to keep up with the staggering death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic. The rise in burials comes after the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner quietly changed its policy to hold 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.
On Thursday morning, an AP photographer captured city workers on Hart Island burying bodies in a mass grave.
According to the city's Department of Correction, which oversees the process, the burials have increased in frequency from 25 burials a week to 24 burials every day, five days a week. New Yorkers who cannot be identified, or whose families are too poor to bury them in a cemetery, have been interred on Hart Island since the mid-19th century, with incarcerated New Yorkers performing many of the burials.
DOC Press Secretary Jason Kersten said that city detainees are not currently involved with the burials.
"For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic. Contracted laborers are performing this important work under DOC supervision.”
The trenches for the mass graves are dug in a matter of hours by heavy machinery, and the burials are always meant to be temporary, in case a family member or loved one eventually claims the body.
On Wednesday, the OCME's website said that the city would hold bodies for just six days before interring them, then on Thursday, that number was changed to 14 days, according to the Wayback Machine.
Earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to say whether prisoners held on Rikers Island would continue to bury the dead during the novel coronavirus pandemic, and bristled at discussing the issue at all, even as he acknowledged that the reported death toll from the virus is likely being vastly undercounted, given how many New Yorkers are dying in their homes without ever being tested for it.
"Let me just—obviously, the place we have used historically is Hart Island," de Blasio said on Monday. "But I am sorry and I say this respectfully – this topic is something that a lot of folks in the media want to ask me about. I'm just going to draw a line on this one. We'll put out updates when it is time."
On Thursday, mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldestein acknowledged the burials.
“For decades, Hart Island has been used to lay to rest decedents who have not been claimed by family members. We will continue using the Island in that fashion during this crisis and it is likely that people who have passed away from COVID-19 who fit this description will be buried on the Island in the coming days," Goldstein said in a statement.
Late last year, the City Council passed legislation to turn Hart Island over to the Parks Department, which would open up the 131 acre island to the public. That is supposed to happen by July 1, 2021.
With reporting from Brigid Bergin